Guest post: Beware the No Frack Promise

In this guest post, Sussex author and campaigner, Martin Dale, explains why he and other local people are sceptical about Celtique Energie’s pledge that it is drilling a conventional exploration well at Broadford Bridge, near Billingshurst, and will not use fracking.

‘Beware the No Frack Promise’ – this was the message that came out of a recent public meeting hosted by Keep Billingshurst Frack Free. The group, supported by members of Frack Free Sussex and with speakers from Friends of the Earth and Sussex Wildlife Trust, called the meeting to address the lack of information about the impending operations at the nearby Broadford Bridge-1 well site, approximately 2 and a half miles south of the village of Billingshurst.

The application to construct a well pad and drill, test and evaluate a well in PEDL 234 at Woodbarn Farm near the tiny hamlet of Broadford Bridge was granted full permission by West Sussex County Council on 5th September 2014. Work began on the site just ten days later. Since then it has been continually said that the site is purely a conventional exploration well, targeting a conventional oil deposit in the Sherwood Sandstone. Local residents were not so sure.

Using a well diagram supplied by Celtique Energie as part of their planning application, as well as a variety of other documents ranging from deleted sections of websites, financial returns to the Securities and Exchange Commission through to private correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act and Investor Presentation slides, the residents sought to explain how this well is anything but conventional!

Of first concern is that the well will be drilled through a known fault line. The risks of drilling near such features are well documented not only from the massive increase in earthquakes in the USA that have been proven to be linked to drilling, but also from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well in 2011 which caused two tremors and deformed the well casing, causing the project to be abandoned. The South East of England is not immune from earthquakes either. West Sussex has experienced four earthquakes since 2005, including a 2.1 magnitude quake just 7km west of the Broadford Bridge site. It would take just the slightest movement in this fault to damage the well bore.

Aside from seismic events, fault lines also provide a conduit for gas and fluid migration, increasing the risk of contamination of the permeable geology and groundwater. This is further compounded since this particular fault line extends up to just 1,000 feet (330 metres) below the surface.

It also becomes apparent, when examining the well diagram, that there happens to be two rather thick layers of shale rock between the surface and the end point – coincidence? We think not. Celtique are planning a 10,000 feet long well to reach the Sherwood Sandstone. However, a vertical well drilled down to the same layer could be completed in around 8,500 feet. Given the massive costs involved in drilling wells ($10million estimated for Broadford Bridge-1), and the financial issues of the companies involved, why is a much longer, deviated well being planned? Between the two layers of shale rock (the Kimmeridge and Lias) sits approximately 1,500 feet of non-shale geology. The deviated well, passing much closer to the fault line, would bypass much of this non-shale rock. In fact, it also takes the well bore right through the two thickest parts of the shale layers, with the horizontal section also occurring within the Liassic Shale. Using the figure of $10million, it can be calculated that it costs $1,000 per 1 foot of well drilled, which begs the question if it is only conventional oil that Celtique are interested in, then why are the planning on spending an additional $2million drilling through the shale layers? Are we really to believe that they are going to spend a vast sum of money – money that they do not have – drilling this well for the fun of it!?

If that is not enough to raise eyebrows, then let’s take a look at what Celtique and Magellan have to say when they are not speaking to residents or local Councils. From a new deleted section of Celtique’s own website (now archived and preserved for all to see by Frack Off), the company has no hesitation in saying “With the emergence of horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing…it is believed that the oil shales in [Celtique’s] acreage which cover an area of 1,000 sq.kms (123,000 acres) could hold up to 200 mmbbls of recoverable oil resources, with a mid-case estimate of 125 mmbbls.” This is furthered in a private letter to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, released under the Freedom of Information Act:

“The best quality Liassic source rocks [shale] with the highest maturity lie in the central licence, PEDL 234, The most attractive Triassic conventional prospects lie to the east as does the Kimmeridgian oil shale potential. As a result our planned drilling will prove the [unconventional] plays extending into acreage within our licence and beyond…with outpost wells to prove the trend and to better define the limits of prospectivity within the first licence period.” Does this sound like a company with no interest in unconventional oil?

Turning our attention now to Magellan Petroleum, a series of specific mentions of Broadford Bridge have been made in financial returns to the Securities and Exchange Commission over the past 12 months. These provide perhaps the most interesting pieces of evidence since Magellan sign off each return under threat of severe criminal penalties that all the contents are true and accurate. In the March 2014 return, Magellan state, referring to Broadford Bridge, that “A complete suite of logs and cores is planned to be collected from the Kimmeridge Clay and Liassic [shale] formations, which we believe will provide technical data, including thickness, oil maturity, formation pressure, and rock brittleness, to be able to assess the potential for unconventional development of these formations and in turn possibly attract partners to continue the development of these licenses.” Of course with Magellan being an American entity it could be argued that we should perhaps listen more to Celtique, as the site operator. After all, they are only interested in the conventional Sherwood Sandstone deposit, right?

“The Company and its partner Celtique also intend to collect logs and cores from the Kimmeridge and Liassic formations, which hold potential for unconventional development” said Magellan in June 2014. They continued “during fiscal year 2014 the Company continued its strategy of pursuing unconventional development in the central Weald…During the year, Magellan and its partner Celtique obtained a key extension to its central Weald licenses from June 2014 to June 2016. This extension will grant sufficient time to further establish the potential of the unconventional prospects of these licenses and to allow the surrounding political process and social environment to unfold.”

Other statements include:

“In the central Weald Basin, Magellan co-owns…three licenses, PEDLs 231, 234, and 243, representing 124 thousand net acres, that may be prospective for oil and gas development from the Kimmeridge Clay and Liassic and other formations.” (November 2014)

““The Company is currently focused on securing potential drilling locations, applying for drilling permits, preparing to drill the Broadford Bridge-1 well, and evaluating the potential of its unconventional prospects in these licenses.” (February 2015)

Furthermore, Magellan does not seem to be quite so shy in stating the unconventional prospectivity of PEDL 234 on their website either. In fact they state that Celtique’s licence blocks in the Sussex Weald “are prospective for unconventional oil and gas”, but only “may be” prospective for conventional development.

If all that is still not enough to convince you that Broadford Bridge-1 is anything other than conventional, then perhaps this will. In an Investor Presentation by Magellan in June 2014, one slide, entitled “UK Unconventional” specifically states drilling an exploratory well “at Broadford Bridge”.

It is apparent that what local residents have been (and continue to be told) is very different to what Government and investors are being told. So who is being told the truth? The residents who live near the site and stand to gain no benefits from the drilling? Or is it the people investing huge sums of money into the project and the Government who threaten severe penalties for untrue and misleading statements? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

In the meantime, the Task Force on Shale Gas met in Billingshurst in December 2014 to discuss the impending drilling. When asked about financial contributions from the development, the minutes report that “Lord Smith said that as the site is currently a conventional site, it is only when the site changes to an unconventional site that community benefits can be considered.” This was followed by a meeting of Billingshurst Parish Council on 11th March 2015:

“A member of the public said they live less than one mile from the Broadford Bridge oil and gas exploration site, and asked when work would begin as he would like to move out before the noise and light pollution commences. The Clerk said the work is undertaken in four stages. Stage one has been done to make the access in to the site, stage two will be to install the drilling rig, stage three is the exploratory drilling and stage four will be the extraction of shale oil or gas.”

Okay, maybe I have been a bit harsh in my assertion that Broadford Bridge is being eyed up for fracking. As Billingshurst Parish Council say, we are only at Stage Two and fracking doesn’t come into play until Stage Four. However, it is clear that whilst the well, as this present time, is conventional, with the evidence presented above, and the precedents being set at ‘conventional exploration wells’ at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire, and Horse Hill in Surrey, can the sounds of high-pressure pumps and gas flares  be heard rumbling in the not-too-distant future?

Beware the No Frack Promise!

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