2019 saw a Conservative government withdraw its support from fracking and introduce a moratorium on the process.
Also this year, several thousand people reported feeling the UK’s largest fracking induced earth tremor. There were successful legal challenges to government planning policy on fracking and to a company injunction against protests. Industry projects saw both successes and failures.
In this review of the year, we’ve picked out key events and developments. You can click on the headings below to take you to each section. The red links in the text will take you to the original DrillOrDrop news articles.
In November 2019, the UK government announced an immediate moratorium on fracking in England because of tremor risks.
It was the second time in eight years that fracking by Cuadrilla had led to a government suspension of the controversial process.
The energy secretary, Andrea Leadsom, said fracking would be paused “unless and until further evidence is provided that it can be carried out safely” and until “compelling new evidence is provided”.
The decision was prompted by research for the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) which concluded that it was not possible with current technology to predict accurately whether fracking would cause tremors and how big they would be.
The OGA research had investigated the 50+ tremors caused by fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site near Blackpool in autumn 2018.
Opponents of fracking described the moratorium as a victory for communities. But there were calls for it to become permanent and extended to acid stimulation of oil and gas wells. Some described the moratorium as a hollow gesture or a ploy for the forthcoming election. Others pointed out loopholes that could allow some forms of hydraulic fracturing to continue. With the election of a majority Conservative government, there were predictions that the moratorium would not last long.
Fracks and cracks
At the time of the moratorium announcement, the OGA was also examining the impacts of fracking at the site’s second, well, PNR2, which began on 15 August 2019.
This operation lasted only 11 days and caused more than 130 seismic events. Local people said they were “living in fear”.
The OGA suspended fracking at Preston New Road after the UK’s largest fracking-induced tremor, measuring 2.9ML, early on August Bank Holiday Monday. The British Geological Survey (BGS) classed this as an intensity 6 earthquake (on the scale from 1-10), felt by several thousand people. The BGS said there were several hundred reports of damage to property.
Cuadrilla sent office staff to check cracks and other damage in local homes. In October, it said it would pay “a few hundred pounds” to residents whose homes had been affected. Some claims remain disputed and a Fylde businessman said he would head a legal case against the company.
Cuadrilla’s planning permission for fracking at Preston New Road expired at the end of November. It had said it would seek another 18 months to drill and frack at the site but so far no new planning application has been submitted.
The company has said tests of the PNR2 well showed there was “quality gas” that could be pumped straight into the grid.
A pressure test on the shale formation is now underway. Equipment has been moved off the site and in December, DrillOrDrop reported that key members of staff had left the company, or were due to leave.
Cuadrilla has continued to lobby the OGA about progress for the UK shale gas industry. Emails seen by the Financial Times showed the company was seeking to extend its licence by the duration of the moratorium.
Along with Ineos and some scientists, Cuadrilla called during 2019 for the fracking seismicity rules to be relaxed. But ministers repeatedly said there would be no review of the seismicity rules and this has not happened.
In October, the Scottish government confirmed it would not support fracking but it stepped back from a ban.
In Surrey, a series of earthquakes, which began in April 2018, resumed on Valentine’s Day this year, followed by a record-breaking seismic event later in the month, measuring 3.1ML. A 2.5ML earthquake also woke residents in May. That month, more than 150 people attended a meeting about unconventional extraction and tremors. In June, a group of researchers said the quakes were unlikely to be caused by oil activity. Other researchers have disagreed with this conclusion.
The High Court ruled in March that a key clause in national planning policy supporting fracking was unlawful.
The case brought by Claire Stephenson on behalf of the campaign group, Talk Fracking, argued that the government had failed to take account of new scientific evidence on the impact of fracking on climate change when it revised the National Planning Policy Framework.
The government later removed paragraph 209a of the NPPF, which said local authorities should develop policies to facilitate onshore oil and gas exploration and extraction and recognise their benefits in supporting a transition to a low carbon economy.
The Court of Appeal ruled in April that sections of the Ineos protest injunction were unlawful. The case was brought by two campaigners, Joe Boyd and Joe Corre. Three appeal court judges ordered the sections of the injunction on obstructing the highway and unlawful means conspiracy to be struck out. The ruling could have implications for other injunctions granted to onshore oil and gas companies.
Greenpeace successfully challenged the government to release a secret report on the progress of fracking. The government breached a judge’s ruling by failing to release the document from the Cabinet Office on time. A heavily-redacted version was finally released in December. It revealed that public opposition was regarded as the root cause of the slow progress of UK fracking.
An anti-fracking campaigner, Eddie Thornton, announced in October he was raising money for a legal challenge to the OGA over the clean-up costs of onshore operations. His case centres on the sale of Third Energy to a subsidiary of a US company.
Drilling and testing
IGas spudded the first shale gas well at its site at Springs Road, Misson, in Nottinghamshire, in January 2019. The company said it encountered the shale sequence and described the results as encouraging. But there has been no update about the prospects of fracking at the site or drilling a second well. The other IGas shale gas site in Nottinghamshire, at Tinker Lane, was restored this year after the well drilled in 2018 failed to encounter the Bowland Shale.
In July, IGas revealed it had plans for two new exploration wells in PEDL235 in the Weald in southern England. But a community event planned for August was shelved. Since then, no details of the sites have emerged and no planning application has been submitted.
Egdon Resources spudded its well at Biscathorpe, in Lincolnshire, in January. But a month later, the company said the well would be sealed after it failed to find the target formation. Since then, partners have said there are plans for a sidetrack at the site.
Rathlin Energy spudded its second well at the West Newton A site in East Yorkshire April. In June, the site was described as “potentially the UK’s largest onshore hydrocarbon discovery since 1973”. A well test in August was suspended after one week. The company said it had encountered oil as well as gas and needed to redesign the test. In November, partners said the focus for the site had switched to oil. But so far, the test has not resumed and correspondence seen by DrillOrDrop in December showed there’s been o request to the Environment Agency to vary the site’s environmental permit.
Angus Energy tried in April to find the water zone in its Kimmeridge oil sidetrack at Brockham, in Surrey. In June, the company announced the sidetrack was uncommercial and it was looking to sell the Brockham licence.
In September, UK Oil & Gas (UKOG) spudded a horizontal well at the Horse Hill site in Surrey. This is the second well at the site and targeted the Portland oil formation.
The government dropped proposals to fast track fracking through the planning system. A ministerial statement in November revealed that more than 97% of people who took part in a consultation opposed the idea to make non-fracking shale gas sites permitted development, avoiding the need for a full planning application. The government also dropped proposals to classify major fracking schemes as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, decided by planning inspectors, rather than local authorities.
In March, the then local government secretary, James Brokenshire, dismissed Cuadrilla’s appeal against refusal of permission for drilling and fracking at Roseacre Wood, near Blackpool. He said the scheme would “have a serious and very significant adverse impact on the safety of people using the public highway.” The decision brought to an end a long-running planning dispute dating back to 2014. Cuadrilla said it would not appeal.
Aurora Resources announced in June it was seeking consent to drill and frack at Great Altcar in Great Altcar in west Lancashire. The application for two wells was published in July. Opponents held a series of public meetings urging residents to object to the scheme. The company has said it is pursuing the application despite the moratorium. A decision is expected in 2020.
In September, Surrey County Council approved plans by UKOG to drill four new production wells at Horse Hill and produce oil for 25 years. There were a thousand objections to the application. Campaigners have launched a legal challenge to the decision.
UKOG also applied for permission to drill for oil and gas at Dunsfold in Surrey. The county council delayed a decision on the application four times and is now expected to consider it early in 2020. UKOG additionally unveiled drilling plans at Arreton and Godshill on the Isle of Wight. Planning applications for these sites are expected in 2020.
Angus Energy plans for an extended well test at Balcombe in West Sussex were published in October. A decision is due early in 2020. The Environment Agency objected to the application because the company had not yet provided detail information on the proposed test.
A government-appointed inspector ruled that 500m fracking buffer zones proposed for the North Yorkshire joint minerals and waste plan were “sound”. Shale gas companies had threatened legal action, arguing that buffer zones were unnecessary and unjustified.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, rejected the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate to drop an anti-fracking policy in the London Plan. The document, which will shape planning decisions in the capital for 20 years, had a policy to refuse development proposals for exploration, appraisal or production of shale gas via hydraulic fracturing. Mr Khan said it was vital that the plan included the policy and he said it was consistent with legislation and the government’s position.
Residents of the Harthill in south Yorkshire failed to overturn planning permission granted to Ineos for shale gas exploration. So far, Ineos has carried out no site work at Harthill, nor at its other shale gas site at Marsh Lane in Derbyshire.
A public inquiry opened in January on IGas’s appeal against refusal of permission to test its shale gas well at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. This was the first UK public inquiry to focus on the impact of an onshore gas site on climate change. The local government secretary announced in June he would make the final decision on the Ellesmere Port appeal and the Ineos appeal for shale gas exploration at Woodsetts in South Yorkshire (see below).
In May, within days of the Woodsetts inquiry, Ineos announced new plans for a 3m high, 100m long, noise barrier. Residents called the proposal “the great wall of Woodsetts”. Rotherham Council withdrew its traffic objection to the Woodsetts scheme but argued at the inquiry that it should still be refused because of noise and impacts on local amenity grounds. Woodsetts Against Fracking opposed the scheme on the grounds of traffic, transport, amenity, noise, lighting and protection of the Green Belt.
The inspectors at both inquiries must submit their reports by January 2020.
Egdon Resources appealed in February against the latest refusal of planning permission for long-term oil production at the Wressle site near Scunthorpe. A second public inquiry on the scheme was held in November but heard no evidence from North Lincolnshire County, which withdrew its objection. Local opponents made statements to the inquiry about climate change, water contamination, industrialisation and their lack of confidence in Egdon Resources.
Campaigns and protests
In March, the trial collapsed of nine people who took part in the longest lock-on protest outside Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site. And in October, a trial of protesters outside Rathlin Energy’s West Newton site collapsed after Humberside Police gave evidence of a “force wide policy” against slow walking.
But three anti-fracking protesters who took part in a lock-on protest at the same site were found guilty of contempt of court in June. This was the first time a UK court ruled that protesters had breached an injunction awarded to an onshore oil and gas company. They were later given suspended prison sentences. They appealed against the finding and the sentence. A decision by the Court of Appeal is awaited.
Campaigners began 24-hour monitoring of Rathlin Energy’s West Newton site in East Yorkshire in January. Humberside Police supported the eviction of their monitoring station in February. A second station was evicted in March. East Riding of Yorkshire closed two roads to the West Newton site in June.
In December, climate campaigners blocked the entrance of the Horse Hill site. It was part of a day of action in Surrey about the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change. UKOG said it was considering contempt of court action against them.
New data from the Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner revealed that less than half the arrests at Cuadrilla’s fracking site led to convictions. Nottinghamshire Police said the cost of policing shale gas protests at IGas sites at Springs Road, Misson, and Tinker Lane was £900,000. In August, the College of Policing sought comments on its new guidance on protest policing.
An engineer who spoke at debates about fracking was cleared of misconduct by his professional body for a second time in March. An independent assessor said there had been an “unpleasant and biased” campaign against him.
Labour MPs and spokespeople joined campaigners at a rally against fracking in Westminster in March. 1,000 people were arrested in two-weeks of climate protests in April by Extinction Rebellion in London. In May, anti-fracking campaigners protested against Team Ineos at the Tour de Yorkshire cycle race.
Rules and regulation
Data from the British Geological Survey revealed that Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site released methane into the atmosphere during well tests. In May, the Environment Agency warned Cuadrilla over three breaches of the site’s environmental permit for methane venting.
In September, Cuadrilla received another official warning over breaches to its environmental permit on groundwater monitoring. In December, it emerged that the company had breached other conditions on monitoring and reporting. In October, the Environment Agency granted Cuadrilla the fifth variation to its environmental permit, this time allowing methane and benzene venting at Preston New Road.
Third Energy’s onshore gas business was sold in April to a subsidiary of the American company, Alpha Energy. A document emerged in February which showed that Third Energy had committed to frack a well a year for four years. But after the sale, the company said it was focusing on its conventional gas business.
A boardroom power struggle at Angus Energy in January ousted the managing director, Paul Vonk. He was later replaced by George Lucan. Jonathan Tidswell-Pretorius resigned as an Angus director in July. He had previously been found to have breached the share dealing code. Angus completed a deal in June to take over the Saltfleetby gasfield in Lincolnshire from Wingas. The transfer was approved by the OGA in December.
Europa announced in March it would hand over operation of the Leith Hill oil exploration licence in Surrey to UKOG. UKOG acquired an increased stake in the Arreton licence on the Isle of Wight and entered a deal to increase its stake in the Horse Hill exploration licences in Surrey by acquiring Magellan’s entire share capital. This takes UKOG’s share from just over 50% to almost 86%.
Reabold Resources announced in October it would invest £16m, raised from a share placing, in its partnership with Rathlin Energy at West Newton in East Yorkshire. In November, Union Jack Oil raised £5m for new wells at West Newton and Biscathorpe in Lincolnshire.
Bloomberg reported in September that Cuadrilla’s major investors, Riverstone Holdings and Kerogen Capital, were “mulling options” to sell their stakes.
Politics and more from government
No political parties actively supported fracking in their general election manifestos. When the election results were in, some opponents of fracking lost their seats, while others increased their majorities. There was both good and bad news for candidates who supported fracking.
There were fringe meetings questioning the value and safety of fracking at the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem party conferences. The Conservative Environmental Network pledged to ban fracking. Its manifesto was signed by the Thirsk and Malton MP, Kevin Hollinrake, who said on his website he did not support the ban.
The National Audit Office reported in October that ministers were unclear on the costs, benefits and liabilities of fracking. It also said that fracking was years behind schedule, despite a cost of £32m.
At a committee hearing in February, senior civil servants were criticised by MPs for “failing to give clear answers on decommissioning” of onshore fracking wells.
The UK’s first shale gas commissioner, Natascha Engel, resigned in April. Analysis by DrillOrDrop of her official diary showed she had twice as many appointments with business than with residents. She admitted that she routinely deleted correspondence and notes from meetings with fracking companies. So far, Ms Engel has not been replaced.
In July, the pro-fracking Boris Johnson won the Conservative Party leadership election. In a reshuffle, he appointed another pro-fracker, Andrea Leadsom, as energy secretary. Robert Jenrick was appointed local government secretary, with the power to decide on shale gas public inquiries.
Conservative-controlled Surrey County Council declared a climate emergency in July after campaigners staged a “die-in”. Conservatives in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, called in August for a moratorium on fracking locally.
Tremors caused by fracking in Lancashire pushed opposition to the process to a record high in the September survey of the government’s quarterly research on public attitudes. For the first time, the proportion of opponents exceeded those who neither supported nor opposed fracking. Support for fracking was at the lowest level since the question was first asked nearly six years ago.
In March, the UK shale industry estimated peak gas production at 1,400 billion cubic feet per year based on assumptions of 100 pads, each with 40 lateral wells, unhindered flow tests and drilling/fracking 4-6 laterals per year per pad for seven years.
But in August, a study by the British Geological Survey and Nottingham University concluded that UK shale gas reserves were lower than previously estimated.
An Environment Agency study, published in October, predicted that emissions from gas flares at onshore sites could be higher than industry estimates.
Researches at Cornell University concluded that unconventional oil and gas was behind the recent large increase in global methane. In December, a separate study concluded that methane leaks from US oil and gas sites were likely to be more widespread than first thought. The largest leak in the US, in Ohio in 2018, leaked more methane in 20 days than some countries emit in a year, it said. Work by the University of Texas, published in October, blamed some earthquakes on fracking in the Permian basin of West Texas.
Cuadrilla announced the retirement of Mark Lappin as its technical director. John Blaymires retired as chief operating officer of IGas and Mike McTighe stepped down as the company’s non-executive chairman. Alan Linn resigned as chief executive of Third Energy after just five months.
The former Green Party leader and fracking opponent, Natalie Bennett, became a peer and the Green Party councillor, Gina Dowding, was elected to the European Parliament.
What didn’t happen in 2019?
As the New Year approaches, DrillOrDrop reviews the likely action on fracking and onshore oil and gas.
This time a year ago, we predicted fracking at Preston New Road in Lancashire and drilling for shale gas at Misson Springs in Nottinghamshire, both of which happened.
But several of the potential developments we mentioned didn’t happen or the results were not as expected:
- Third Energy did not frack at Kirby Misperton and there was no public statement on whether the company passed the government’s financial resilience test.
- The traffic light system was not relaxed in line with industry calls.
- Government did not implement proposals to fast track fracking through permitted development and the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project regime.
- Ineos did not carry out seismic testing at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire even though the National Trust dropped its refusal for access.
- Egdon Resources did not drill its proposed oil well at North Kelsey.
Please let us know if we have forgotten important developments during the past 12 months that you think should be included.
Coming soon: DrillOrDrop’s article on what to watch in 2020.