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Fracking - myths and the truth

05 November 2014

While the fracking debate continues to rage across the country, it should be noted that no shale gas has yet been produced from hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ as it is more commonly known, nor have any reserves been proven to date.

Many myths surround the practice so we have created this brief note to outline some of the facts.

Exploration for shale gas is only permitted under licences issued by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Licences are offered across England and Wales and not just the current heartlands of exploration such as Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.

In recent times, more and more landowners have been approached by energy firms interested in finding out what lies beneath their land. Although technically licences do, once issued, give compulsory powers to access surface sites, companies that hold them have been very reluctant to use these powers and it is hard to see the benefit in them doing so at the moment.

Any initial investigation of shale gas reserves is a low key operation and generally not intrusive or disruptive. Although some landowners close to villages have been cautious, gauging local reaction before going ahead with any exploration is key. Minimal long-term disturbance and fair access payments mean that farmers and landowners are understandably interested if approached. Short-term issues such as potential damage to crops, drainage and heavy machinery access makes taking professional advice prudent if this is something you are considering.

The next stage in the process is drilling investigation wells. Although geology is a factor, other concerns such as proximity to residential dwellings, road access and visual impact may mean that a licence allows only a few accessible sites. A successful exploration site could develop into an extraction site which could then be used for up to 25 years. This is a long-term commitment and should not be entered into without very careful thought. It is essential that the right terms are agreed in any extraction agreement with the exploration company, to make sure landowners are properly compensated.

Under the Petroleum Act 1998, shale gas belongs to the Crown, but that shouldn’t prevent a site from being a useful source of income for the landowner.

The drilling process can create noise and traffic issues with large numbers of HGVs accessing the site, but once extraction is underway most sites have a low impact on the community. Vertical boreholes of up to three kilometres deep will be drilled down to the shale beds and horizontal bores of up to a similar distance are then sent out from the main well.

Legislation confirmed in the Queen’s Speech on 4 June 2014 means that such horizontal bore techniques will no longer be classed as trespassing under neighbouring landowners’ property, a change which has been brought in to try to speed up the development of this industry. More legislation to enable the industry to further develop is also expected.

With onshore gas extraction largely an unknown quantity in the UK, it is critical to seek advice from an expert if you are considering exploring potential gas reserves on your land.

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Adam Hale BA (Hons), TEP, FALA
Senior associate, solicitor
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