Interview: What makes a good drilling site?

Holmwood prospect

Picture: Oil and Gas Authority

The search for potential shale gas sites is now underway across the UK. DrillOrDrop will be reporting later this month on seismic surveying. But first we ask: “What do companies look for above the ground?”

Paul-Foster-175x233Paul Foster, a director with the planning consultancy, Barton Willmore, explains what makes a good location for oil and gas exploration and how the industry finds it.

Eliminating problems

In searches for potential sites, Barton Willmore uses geographical information system [GIS] software to eliminate unsuitable locations.

The software identifies features, called constraints, which an oil and gas company wants to avoid. In a search across two exploration licence areas in Lincolnshire in 2015, for example, the constraints included:

  • Nature reserves, conservation areas, Sites of Special Scientific Interest
  • Groundwater source protection zones
  • Flood risk areas
  • Scheduled ancient monuments and listed buildings
  • Nearby buildings
  • Public rights of way

Paul Foster said:

“We normally throw a 300m boundary around a dwelling so that there wouldn’t be a prospect of any land being developed within that 300m of a well site. 300m is usually the industry standard. That’s for visual and for noise reasons.”

With flood areas, he said:

“The next stage was to map out flood risk areas from zones one, two and three. In Lincolnshire most of the land is excluded from what’s possibly available because it’s quite flat, subject to flooding, so we then took off the lesser flood risk areas so that we were left with the high risk ones. By doing that, we were left with about 54% of the total site area of the two PEDLs [Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences] that weren’t constricted because of environmental or other factors.”

Right size, right roads

In the Lincolnshire case, Barton Willmore also looked for sites that were:

  • At least 1ha in size
  • Close to the main highway network

Mr Foster said:

“The client defined that they were only interested in sites which were one hectare or more in size. That’s the minimum size really to develop any well site. So that excludes some of the smaller fields.”

On roads, he said:

“An operator wants to be as close as they possibly can to the local highway network to avoid having to go down any unclassified roads or having to construct a new access path or road to a site.”

What’s more important?

In the Lincolnshire screening exercise, Barton Willmore then gave each remaining parcel of land a score of between 0 and 1 based on its distance from a constraint. So, for example, land close to a village would score 0 but land the furthest away would score 1. Mr Foster said:

“You can then map out areas that are the best performing in terms of those furthest away from those built structures and those that are the worst. Then you can do that for listed buildings, public rights of way, flood risk areas, source protection zones. So you build up a pattern of different maps that show the best and the worst, depending on those particular environmental constraints.”

Using the scores, the consultants gave a higher weighting to public rights of way and the road network than the other constraints.

“If you’re looking from a security point of view, an operator wouldn’t want to have a well site close to or even crossing a public right of way because that could encourage people to trespass. Equally you want the well site to be as close as possible to the road network.”

“So with this particular scenario we enhanced the weighting of those two elements by up to 30% and dropped everything else down to 10 or 20% so that it brings up a different range of sites that reflect that weighting. Equally you can do that for avoiding built structures.

“It gives the operator the flexibility to add or take away the weight they feel is appropriate depending on what they consider to be particular issues.”

The whole process takes about a fortnight, he said.

What happens next?

Paul Foster said: “At this stage, land registry titles were applied to all the fields measuring more than 1ha that were “unconstrained” to find out who owned the land”.

Not all land is registered but in the Lincolnshire exercise applying land registry titles produced a lot of potentially suitable fields, he said.

In another study in Dorset, Barton Willmore looked for sites within 1.5km of a search area already identified by seismic data. In this case, the exercise produced three or four possibilities.

“Immediately you can then go out and make inquiries to see whether the landowner would be willing to consider a wellsite on their land.

“We try to set up meetings, perhaps give people a ring, and then go down to meet the landowner, set out why we’re there.

“They are usually farmers and they’re always interested in how much rental income they’re going to get and that’s usually based on agricultural land values. It’s not based on royalties or how much oil and gas you’re getting out of the ground.

“They will often have their land agents with them, and some land agents are much more familiar with negotiating oil and gas heads of terms than others.”

Mr Foster would not disclose what landowners could earn from renting a field to a drilling company.

“Is it fracking?”

“Usually the first question from landowners is ‘Are you going to frack?’.

“It’s not necessarily because they’re against it but sometimes you find that their children have been to school and they’ve had lessons on environmental issues and they already are coming home with concerns about potential impacts of fracking.

“They’ve heard about potential groundwater pollution and the earthquakes that everyone’s been aware of. Sometimes the parents can be influenced by their offspring about whether or not they want to take that on board.

“Up till now, we’ve always said no because it’s always been conventional”.

Barton Willmore worked with Europa to identify the conventional oil site known as the Holmwood Prospect, or (locally) Bury Hill Wood, near Dorking. The company has also worked for Third Energy to find conventional sites in the North York Moors National Park. But it recently it submitted tenders to INEOS to search for shale gas sites.

“Now that Third Energy have got their planning permission I imagine operators are going to be looking more favourably upon going forward with potential schemes to undertake hydraulic fracturing.”

North-South divide

Asked whether awareness about fracking was making the search for sites harder, Paul Foster said:

“I think there’s probably a north-south divide.

“Generally, I think in the North we’ve experienced relatively a lot of support, certainly for conventional drilling.

“People are familiar with industrial structures within the landscape – I’m thinking of around Scunthorpe and Grimsby – and local people realise that we need to have an indigenous supply of fossil fuels. Clearly renewables are coming on-stream and they are growing but there is still going to be a gap to bridge and if the oil and gas is under the ground and it can be got out relatively easily without an adverse impacts on the environment then I think local people are all for it.

“People down south, I think, are probably more, dare I say it, articulate. It is perhaps more crowded, down in West Sussex and locations like that, and perhaps a greater willingness to avoid any potential despoil of the countryside because people aren’t necessarily used to having large industrial structures in the countryside, as they have done up north.

“It’s a bit of a blanket approach and it doesn’t always ring true but I think we have experienced that sort of North-South differential.”

Rural versus urban

Most drilling sites in the UK are rural. But they don’t have to be, Mr Foster said:

“We have secured planning permission for Egdon Resources in the past on an existing business park at Kirkleatham in Teesside and although it is semi-rural it is still a business park.

“If there are no residential properties in the vicinity, if they are more than 300m away then an industrial location would be more than suitable.

“The roads would have been constructed to allow heavy lorries to get to the site and at night when drilling takes place, because it’s 24-hours for an eight-week period, there would be nobody onsite so that’s fine.”

The issue of access

Access can sometimes cause problems to operators, Mr Foster said.

“It’s not uncommon to have to have separate land agreements with perhaps three or four landowners in addition to the landowner where the wellsite is going to be.

“It only takes one landowner to be difficult or to demand unreasonable rental which means it can kill off that site altogether.”

The planning process

Barton Willmore  uses the results of GIS searches in the planning and sustainability statement accompanying a planning application. Paul Foster said some planning authorities had very clear policies on looking at alternative locations to the application site.

“Dorset, for example, want to see evidence of how a particular site has been identified and why other locations have been discounted.

“They wanted to know how we’ve looked at sites outside the AONB [Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty] because I don’t think we’ll get much support for identifying even a particular good site, even with a willing landowner, if it’s in the Dorset AONB when you could find a reasonably good alternative just outside the AONB.”

Above-ground issues would not be the ultimate factor in choosing locations or deciding on a PEDL licence, he said. But if only 15 or 20% of the land in a licence area was unconstrained it would be difficult to find sites.

“That’s when an operator will have to take a judgement as to whether to proceed. So it’s part of the toolbox that an operator would use to decide whether to proceed with a licence bid or not.”

Paul Foster is speaking at the UK Onshore Oil and Gas Planning and Environment Summit today at Manchester Conference Centre. DrillOrDrop applied for a press pass for the event but the organisers were unable to provide one. We have asked the speakers for copies of their presentations and we will report what they have to say when we receive them. 

7 replies »

  1. “People down south, I think, are probably more, dare I say it, articulate” – I hope he’s not stupid enough to repeat that idiotic comment today in Manchester!

    So not only are we desolate we are also thick. Easy pickings then?

  2. Never mind whether we’re articulate. We have to talk blunt, innit? No means no. He can go tell his nonsense about site selection and setback distances to the wind. Where was he when the Fylde appeals were in progress? Both sites near neighbours. Mind you he might be right about certain farmers. Cuadrilla got their land leases for a miserable pittance.

  3. The primary requirement for a “good drilling site” is that it is located vertically above, or as close to this as possible, the point at which the geologists wish to penetrate the geological structure / target. Surface location selection as discussed above then indentifies the most suitable site to achieve this objective.

  4. It’s interesting to read that “DrillOrDrop applied for a press pass for the event but the organisers were unable to provide one” – Clearly this isn’t an industry that wants any light shining on its goings on. No wonder they don’t have any trust out here.

    • You have to be kidding John.

      This industry has had a light shining on it for years, and in doing so has been only too happy to take the community along the road via their numerous community information/education meetings and presentations.

      • You have to be kidding Michael.

        Round here we haven’t had a community meeting from them for an age and they were careful to make sure the last ones were as far away from a town centre as they possibly could! Instead now they stage PR offensives to selected audiences (the staff) in pubs in Blackpool and get the local press to report on them. The idea that they have any real community engagement in PEDL 165 is a joke (not a very funny one though perhaps).

  5. Interesting – and very disturbing – that this Barton Willimore spokesperson is now claiming that for a fracking site, 300m from dwellings is the ‘industry standard’, not 400m, as claimed by INEOS and Kevin Hollinrake [the latter downgrading his own personal limit of 1km from dwellings on his return from Pennsylvania, as quoted in an interview with Drill or Drop, after industry pressure]. Soon the industry spin-doctors will be claiming that ‘just outside people’s front doors is fine for a fracking site”. Just not their front doors, obviously.

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