2018 was a year of firsts for fracking and the campaigns against it, with successes and setbacks on both sides of the argument.
In this review of the year, we’ve picked out key events and developments in 10 areas. You can use the red quick links below to go straight to the different sections or use the red links in the text to the original posts.
2018 saw the first fracks in the UK since 2011. They followed the completion in April and July of the UK’s first horizontal shale gas wells at Cuadrilla’s shale gas site at Preston New Road near Blackpool.
The fracking process, which began on 15 October, triggered a total of 57 earthquakes in two months.
The biggest tremor, measuring 1.5ML, was felt by people living and working locally. Three tremors were classed as red events under the regulations known as the traffic light system or TLS. They measured more than 0.5ML and happened when fracking was underway. The TLS required Cuadrilla to pause fracking for 18 hours and check the integrity of the well. The company said it paused fracking five times because of seismic activity.
Chief executive, Francis Egan, told newspapers the shale gas industry could be “strangled before birth” because of the TLS and warned that the Cuadrilla was not getting “effective fractures”. He called for the 0.5ML threshold to be raised and referred to limits up to 4.5ML used in other countries. On Boxing Day, the Times reported similar comments by an Ineos director, Tom Crotty. The energy minister, Claire Perry, has said the threshold could be relaxed but she also said it would be foolish to raise the limit at this stage.
Despite Mr Egan’s pessimism, Cuadrilla announced in early November it had produced the UK’s first shale gas. It published a short video of gas being burned in one of the flares at Preston New Road. Later that month, one of the major investors in the site, the Australian mining company, A J Lucas, revealed that Cuadrilla would allow more fluid to come back to the surface to tackle the problem of earth tremors.
But within three weeks of that statement, Cuadrilla began moving equipment off the site, including fracking pumps and sand silos. A company statement said the equipment would be back in 2019 but it wasn’t any more precise about when.
Cuadrilla is still waiting for approval of the fracturing plan for the second well. Under the terms of the planning permission, it has until December 2019 to drill two more wells and frack three.
The only other UK company with planning permission for fracking – Third Energy at the Kirby Misperton KM8 wellpad in North Yorkshire – failed to carry out the operation in 2018.
In January, the government announced it was tightening the financial checks on shale gas companies and delayed a decision on fracking consent at KM8 until Third Energy published its overdue accounts. The company was also required to undergo a financial resilience test (see also Company News). In March, fracking equipment was moved off the KM8 site and a local protection camp closed. Since then, there’s been no news on when or if fracking at Kirby Misperton may start.
The government announced plans in May to speed up shale gas schemes by taking them out of local authority control. The announcement, made in a joint written ministerial statement, contained proposals from the 2017 Conservative election manifesto to make non-fracking schemes permitted development, avoiding the need for a planning application. It also proposed to classify major shale gas production schemes as nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIP), which would be decided by a minister, rather than a local authority. The statement further said local authorities should recognise the definition of fracking in the Infrastructure Act.
In August, a survey revealed that most Conservative councillors opposed the permitted development proposal. MPs from across parliament lined up to criticise it. The Conservative MP for Fylde, Mark Menzies, described the idea as “irresponsible and downright bonkers”. The government was warned it could lose its parliamentary majority if the proposal came to a vote. A petition against attracted more than 300,000 signatures. The results of a public consultation are expected in 2019.
The Mayor of Malton, Paul Andrews, brought a High Court challenge to the section of the Written Ministerial Statement on the definition of fracking. His case was dismissed but a senior planning judge, Mr Justice Holgate, indicated that councils were entitled to apply a wider definition if they explained their reasons for doing so (see also Decisions and Permissions.
As MPs prepared to go on summer holiday, the government announced changes to the blueprint for planning, the National Planning Policy Framework or NPPF. The changes required English councils to recognise what were described as the benefits of onshore hydrocarbons, including shale gas, for energy security and transition to a low carbon economy. Councils were also required to put in place policies to facilitate exploration and extraction.
The changes had limited support from a public consultation and they were challenged in court in December by Friends of the Earth and Talk Fracking. The campaign organisations argued that the government should have assessed the impacts of the revised NPPF on the environment and taken account of new evidence on climate change. During Talk Fracking’s case, the government barrister confirmed that English local councils could reject national policy on fracking if they had evidence that the process contributed to climate change. Judgements are expected early in 2019.
The Welsh government took responsibility for oil and gas licensing in October. In December it re-stated its presumption against fracking, saying shale gas was “not compatible with decarbonisation targets”.
The UK government appointed Natascha Engel, the former pro-fracking Labour MP and Ineos consultant, as its first shale gas commissioner. One of her first jobs was to complain to newspapers about the use of the word “earthquakes” for seismic activity caused by fracking at Cuadrilla’s shale gas site. The activity was listed on a British Geological Survey webpage headed “Earthquakes around the British Isles in the last 100 days”. Ms Engel also met opponents of Cuadrilla’s operation at Preston New Road and a pro-fracking group in North Yorkshire.
In September, three anti-fracking campaigners – Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Rich Loizou – were jailed for 16 and 15 months for their part in a 99-hour lorry-surfing protest outside Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site. A fourth campaigner, Julian Brock, who also took part in the protest, received a suspended prison sentence.
The three men who were jailed were the first people to be sent to prison for taking part in an anti-fracking protest. A defence barrister in the case, Kirsty Brimelow QC, said they were the first environmental protesters to be jailed for the offence of public nuisance since the Kinder Scout mass trespass in the 1930s.
The three men appealed against the sentence and 21 days after being sent to Preston Prison the Lord Chief Justice freed them saying the jail term was manifestly excessive. They received two-year conditional discharges instead, in recognition of the time of they had spent in custody.
An inquiry opened into whether the judge at the original trial had breached the code of judicial conduct. It emerged that his sister, who ran a company with links to the oil and gas industry, had openly supported shale gas and Cuadrilla’s planning application for Preston New Road. So far, there has been no public outcome to the inquiry.
Lock-on protests, lorry surfing and slow walking protests, as well as mass rallies, continued throughout the year outside oil and gas sites, despite injunctions now granted to most exploration companies operating in the UK (see Legal).
On the day that fracking started at Preston New Road, two people climbed on top of a van at the site entrance and two people locked themselves together outside the landowner’s farm. Three of the people involved have been charged with obstructing the highway but their cases have yet to be tried. At the end of the first week of fracking, an estimated 1,000 people gathered outside the site. Earlier in October, a nine-person blockade of the site lasted three days.
In June, a group of grandparents, aged 63-82 took part in a lock-on protest at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. An estimated 6,000 people, including opponents of fracking, closed five bridges in central London in November to highlight their concern about climate change. Also that month, an 81-hour protest blockaded the entrance to Tinker Lane. Nottinghamshire Police introduced section 14 restrictions which limited protests to a designated area.
In the first case of its kind, an anti-fracking protesters was prosecuted under the Computer Misuse Act for interfering with seismic testing equipment. He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted in December in a jury trial at Nottingham Crown Court. He argued that the equipment was not a computer.
Just before Christmas, the Disability News Service reported that Lancashire Police had tipped off the Department for Work and Pension about disabled people taking part in protests outside Preston New Road.
The Frack Free United campaign network delivered a declaration to Downing Street in early December, calling for a halt to fracking. It was signed by 8,000 politicians, academics, community groups, environmental organisations and residents in affected areas. (See also guest post about the declaration). In southern England, campaigners called for tougher rules on the use of acid in oil and gas developments, criticising what they described as a “gaping hole” in the regulations.
A group of regular protesters outside Preston New Road told Lancashire Police its operations had “irreparably damaged community relations” and there was no confidence in the force or its procedures. Several members of the group withdrew from a regular police liaison meeting.
The most recent estimate from Lancashire Constabulary put the cost of policing protests at Preston New Road at £9.197m. The cost of policing protests outside the Kirby Misperton site in North Yorkshire was estimated at £669,888. As court cases arising from protests at Kirby Misperton concluded, a lawyer representing many protesters said under half the arrests had ended in convictions.
In January Rotherham Borough Council voted against Ineos plans for shale gas exploration at Common Road, Harthill. The same day Cheshire West and Chester council opposed IGas plans to test its existing well at Ellesmere Port.
The Harthill decision was overturned by a planning inspector after a public inquiry in June and just before Christmas villagers reported the site was being fenced. A judicial review of the inquiry decision is due to be heard in Leeds next month.
IGas appealed against the Ellesmere Port decision and a public inquiry opens next month in Chester. The council and Frack Free Ellesmere Port and Upton will defend the decision on a range of grounds, including climate change.
Also in January 2018, Egdon lost its appeal against the refusal of plans for long-term oil production plans for Wressle near Scunthorpe. A revised application, which Egdon said addressed all the inspector’s concerns, was also rejected by North Lincolnshire councillors in November. Egdon said it would appeal again but there’s been no formal announcement so far. There is now no planning permission for the site, which the inquiry inspector ordered to be restored eight months ago.
Egdon had better news later in the year from Lincolnshire County Council when it granted permission for drilling at North Kelsey and Biscathorpe. Site work began at Biscathorpe in November and drilling is expected to start in early January.
Another Ineos application came before councillors in Derbyshire in February. The county’s planning committee voted against shale gas exploration on the edge of the village of Bramleymoor Lane. Ineos again appealed and the decision was again overturned by a planning inspector. Work has not yet started at the site.
In March, Rotherham councillors refused Ineos’s application for shale gas exploration in the village of Woodsetts. The company submitted another almost identical application for the same site, which Rotherham also refused in September. So far, Ineos has not appealed.
Also in March, DrillOrDrop reported that UKOG had lost its right of access to its site at Markwells Wood in the South Downs National Park. UKOG began work to restore the site in November. It has until 17 January 2019 to complete the work under a breach of condition notice issued by the national park authority.
Another UKOG site, at Horse Hill, near Gatwick submitted plans just before Christmas for four new wells to produce oil for 20 years. The company estimated it could be producing 500 tonnes of oil per day. (See also flow testing at Horse Hill in Drilling and testing)
Also just before Christmas, the British Geological Survey submitted its plans for a Geoenergy Observatory which would drill multiple boreholes across the Ince Marshes in Cheshire to investigate how shale gas behaves underground.
In August, Angus Energy received retrospective permission for a sidetrack well at Brockham, which Surrey County Council said had been drilled without consent.
The Environment Agency finally upgraded the permit for the Brockham site after a near two-year review process. But the EA did not carry out the usual “minded to” consultation because it said flow tests on the sidetrack were imminent. The permit came with preconditions and no consent for reinjection of produced water, which had been carried out at the site.
Residents, who had previously highlighted loopholes in the regulation of the previous old-style permit, were unhappy about communication from the Environment Agency and the lifting of some of the pre-conditions. Angus was also granted permission for 10 more years of oil production at Lidsey in West Sussex and in December, it applied to allow oil production there round-the-clock.
Cuadrilla’s traffic scheme for a second shale gas site at Roseacre Wood in Lancashire were opposed by local communities, councils and MPs. The scheme was considered at a public inquiry in April. The decision, to be made by the local government secretary, James Brokenshire, is expected early in 2019.
In July, the Environment Agency granted an environmental permit for Europa’s Leith Hill site in Surrey despite opposition from a petition with more than 100,000 signatures. But in September, Europa announced the surprise news that it was pulling out of the site. The environment secretary, Michael Gove, refused to renew the lease on Forestry Commission land because of the potential impact of drilling on neighbouring ancient woodland. The decision brought to an end a campaign against oil exploration in the area lasting nearly 10 years.
In North Yorkshire, the inspector at the examination of the region’s minerals plan backed the proposal for buffer zones between shale gas sites and homes and a local definition of fracking. The shale gas industry said it would go to court over the buffer zones and claimed they would make exploration unviable in the area. Within weeks, a written ministerial statement reminded local authorities they should follow the definition of fracking adopted by the government and should follow national planning policy on shale gas sites (see Government: Fast tracking shale gas)
In East Yorkshire, Rathlin Energy was granted another three years of consent for its West Newton A site. This was the second three-year extension and will allow Rathlin to drill a second well, granted under the original planning permission granted in January 2013. The first delivery to the site, which has been mothballed since 2014, was in early December. Rathlin said it planned to drill the second well into the Kirkham Abbey formation at about 1,800m and the Cadeby formation at 1,900m.
In November, IGas spudded the Tinker Lane well in north Nottinghamshire, the first UK shale gas drilled with its partner, Ineos. Less than a month later, IGas announced the well had failed to encounter the Bowland Shale.
The company said it would now move on to drill up to two wells at Misson Springs about 10km away from Tinker Lane. Construction work began there in January and was allowed to continue into the owl nesting season, despite local opposition. Campaigners established a protection camp nearby.
Millions of pounds were wiped off UKOG shares in February on news of possible formation damage at the company’s well at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex. The company was granted more time to explore for oil at the site but operations were suspended in March and no work has taken place since then. Flow testing at UKOG’s site at Horse Hill in Surrey is still underway. Results so far show the site is commercially-viable, the company has said.
Correspondence between Third Energy and North Yorkshire County Council revealed that the company’s Vale of Pickering pipeline could be in the wrong place. Evidence that the route of the pipeline did not comply with planning permission emerged when Third Energy sought to extend the consent.
Angus Energy announced in March that oil production had resumed at its Brockham and Lidsey sites in Surrey and West Sussex. At Brockham, the company started the flow test programme the disputed sidetrack well, drilled into the Kimmeridge formation.
Angus also carried out a seven-day flow test at Balcombe in West Sussex, after taking over the licence from Cuadrilla. It reported flow rates of up to 1,587 barrels of oil per day but also unexpected water. The tests were curtailed because of equipment failure.
Surrey residents reported a series of earth tremors in an area where seismic activity was unheard of for 50 years. A group of geologists called for a halt to oil and gas operations in the area but the two companies involved, UKOG and Angus, said it had nothing to do with them. A report coordinated by the BGS, found no evidence to link the tremors to the oil and gas industry. One contributor disagreed and said more research was needed.
In Lancashire, Cuadrilla restored the Grange Road site at Singleton, nearly seven years after the original deadline. This was the last of the company’s early shale gas sites to be restored. The Becconsall site was also restored this year, following earlier work at Preese Hall and Anna’s Road. Of these sites, only Preese Hall was fracked. There were no public announcements about shale gas finds at any of the sites.
In February, Third Energy published its delayed accounts, reporting a loss of £3.4m and debts of £55m+. Two leading city figures, Keith Cochrane (left) and Lord Jitesh Gadhia, who had been appointed as Third Energy directors, resigned. Third Energy said this was because of delays in the company’s fracking programme.
The top job at Ineos Upstream, also known as Ineos Shale, changed twice during the year. Lynn Calder, the former commercial director, took on the top job in the summer from Ron Coyle. But in December, Companies House reported that she had resigned her directorship of Ineos Upstream. An Ineos insider said she had moved to another part of the Ineos group. The company has not responded to our questions about her replacement.
In June, Celtique Energie sold its final stake in the UK onshore oil and gas industry. In 2014, the company had applied to explore for oil at two sites in West Sussex, both of which were refused.
In November, Rathlin Energy, previously wholly owned by the Canadian Connaught Oil & Gas, arranged £3m of funding with the investment company, Reabold Resources. Rathlin also made a farm-in agreement with Union Jack Oil and Humber Oil. According to Rathlin’s most recent accounts it had a debt of £33.9m and “doubt” over company viability. The investment is expected to be used to drill a second well at the West Newton-A site (see Drilling and testing)
Cuadrilla’s most recent Lancashire Commitment Tracker showed that since 1 January 2016, the company had created 26 full time and 46 temporary or contract jobs. Direct spending in Lancashire was put at £10.4m and the local community benefit at £240,000.
Ineos began legal action against the National Trust in February to get access to Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire for seismic testing. The case was due to go to court in spring 2019 but in December the National Trust gave way and allowed Ineos permission to use its land. The Trust said it stood by its opposition to fracking.
Ineos and Reach Coal Seam Gas took the Scottish Government to court over its policy against hydraulic fracturing. The court ruled against the companies in June. The judge, Lord Pentland, said the Scottish government’s preferred policy position against fracking for shale gas in Scotland should stand. He said the “effective ban” announced by Scottish ministers last year did not amount to a legally-enforceable prohibition and so the case brought by Ineos and Reach was unfounded.
Cuadrilla, UKOG, IGas and Angus Energy were granted injunctions outlawing protests outside their sites. Campaigners were given permission to appeal against the UKOG injunction and ones granted to Ineos in 2017. These cases are expected to be heard together by the Court of Appeal in March 2019.
A fortnight after Cuadrilla’s injunction was granted, six campaigners took part in a lock-on to protest at what they described as the company’s “abuse of the law”. Cuadrilla said it would take legal action for a breach of the injunction. So far, there’s no public information of legal action against people who have breached the injunctions.
A Lancashire campaigner, Bob Dennett, was granted a temporary injunction on Cuadrilla’s Lancashire fracking operation. He argued that Lancashire County Council had failed to protect local people from emergencies. But his case was dismissed at a hearing at the High Court in October and Cuadrilla began fracking three days later, delayed by Storm Callum.
The Court of Appeal dismissed legal challenges to the decision by the then communities’ secretary, Sajid Javid, to grant permission for fracking at Preston New Road. The cases were brought by Preston New Road Action Group and Gayzer Frackman. The court refused permission to appeal further.
Support for shale gas rose slightly in a government survey published in February. In August, the government dropped the question about support or opposition to fracking. But in November, it emerged that there’d been a change of heart and the question returned with support at 15% and opposition at 31%.
A report by Manchester University concluded that shale gas was one of the least sustainable ways to produce electricity.
Emeritus professor Peter Styles, a former adviser on seismicity to David Cameron, warned about the risks of fracking in mining areas near geological faults. He also suggested that seismic testing was inadequate to identify faults that could trigger seismic activity above the 0.5ML threshold of the traffic light system. Campaigners responded by calling for a moratorium on fracking in former mining areas.
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering confirmed in June that it was updating its report on fracking. The first version, published in 2012, concluded that the risk of fracking was “very low provided that shale gas extraction took place at depths of many hundreds of metres or several kilometres. It made 10 recommendations and there has been disagreement about how many have been implemented. The government has used the conclusions to support its case for frackng.
Funding worth £7.6m was confirmed for research into fracking. The work, covering 26 research projects in seven main topic areas, will take place at 17 research institutions. It will investigate risks of fracking, distribution of shale gas, socio-economic impacts, public attitudes and participation and the UK shale gas landscape.
The government quietly published a report which linked shale gas developments to increased air pollution. The report had been written three years earlier. Researchers from York University revealed that preparations for fracking at Kirby Misperton turned the air quality from rural to urban because of exhaust fumes from delivery vehicles, police cars and on-site generators and pumps.
Research by campaign organisations revealed that UK councils invest £9bn+ of their pension funds in companies that carry out fracking.
DrillOrDrop contributor, Ben Dean, revealed that 80% of UK petroleum exploration and development licences issued before 2005 were relinquished or surrendered before their full term. We also reported on an investigation by researcher, Stuart Lane, that one small oil well in Dorset was legally allowed to emit hundreds of tonnes of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, directly into the atmosphere.
The pro-fracking commentator, Nick Grealy, a regular contributor to DrillOrDrop, died from cancer in February.
What did we miss?
We hope this review of 2018 was useful. But could it be more useful?
Please let us know if we have forgotten important developments during the past 12 months that you think should be included.