UK Task Force Concludes that Shale Gas Drilling Can Be Safely Conducted and Recommends Exploratory Drilling with Tight Regulation
V&E Shale Insights — Tracking Fracking E-communication, December 23, 2015
A multi-disciplinary group of experts in the United Kingdom (UK) issued its “Final Conclusions and Recommendations” on December 15, 2015, and recommended exploratory drilling in the United Kingdom. The UK Task Force on Shale Gas (Task Force) concluded that “shale gas can be produced safely” in the United Kingdom and play a vital role in that country’s fuel portfolio in the short and medium term, bolster energy security, and spur job creation. Consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) 2015 draft hydraulic fracturing study, the academics, professionals, and environmental scientists supporting the UK panel found that fluid migration from the deep strata where hydraulic fracturing is conducted is not a pathway to contamination of aquifers. Based on its study, the Task Force urges that exploratory “drilling to ascertain how much gas may be recoverable in the UK should begin,” but also calls for the strict regulation of the UK’s nascent shale gas industry.
What are the Task
Force’s Key Conclusions?
Echoing the conclusions of recent
academic and governmental studies in the U.S., the Task Force found that any risk
to the local environment or public health associated with gas extraction is not
a result of “issues with the process of hydraulic fracturing itself”; rather, such
risks relate primarily to well construction. Like USEPA before it, the Task Force concluded that recent
U.S. studies show “an extremely low likelihood of contamination of aquifers”
from the upward migration of fluids and gas through rock formations at depths
where the separation distances are greater than 1000 meters. Accordingly, the
Task Force declined to include such fluid migration among the four pathways to
contamination it identified.
The Task Force went on to conclude
that “[s]hale gas can be produced safely” in the UK. It further concluded that
the “risk from shale gas to the local environment or to public health is no
greater than that associated with comparable industries provided, as with all
industrial works, that operators follow best-practice.” Accordingly, the Task
Force presented a number of recommendations to ensure that shale
gas drilling in the UK occurs safely, including recommendations for:
- Baseline monitoring at drilling sites;
- An emphasis on the “highest standards” for well
- Mandating “green completions” for production wells;
- “[F]ull disclosure” of the chemical content of substances
used in shale gas exploration and production; and
- “[A] risk assessment of aquifer contamination . . . where
appropriate, with the level of detail increasing as the separation distance
decreases,” presented in an earlier Task Force report.
The Final Conclusions and
Recommendations further recommend that “[o]perators . . . agree that the
specific composition [of materials used in shale gas exploration and production]
will not exceed levels mandated by the Environment Agency,” suggesting a more
prescriptive approach to the regulation of fluids used in the fracturing
process than the disclosure-based system employed by U.S. jurisdictions.
What is the UK Task Force on Shale
UK Task Force was created “to provide a transparent, trusted, independent and
impartial platform for public scrutiny, discussion and information about shale
gas exploration and production in the UK.” Though it was funded by six
companies, its Task Force Constitution mandated that the Task Force operate
independently of its funding organizations. To ensure that this mandate was
achieved, Lord Chris Smith, former Chair of the UK Environment Agency, led its
efforts and composed a panel of academics with expertise in geology and
engineering especially relevant to shale gas exploration and production,
industry advisors with expertise in oil and gas exploration and production, and
Over the course of a year beginning
in September 2014, the UK panel assessed the potential environmental impacts, regulatory
systems, best management practices, and economic consequences associated with shale
gas exploration and production in an effort to help enable “well informed
decisions on the future of shale gas in the UK.” The process included public
meetings and the publication of four interim reports: (1) Planning, Regulation
and Local Engagement; (2) Assessing the Impact of Shale Gas on the Local
Environment and Health; (3) Assessing the Impact of Shale Gas on Climate
Change; and (4) The Economic Impacts of a UK Shale Gas Industry.
What is the Path
Forward for Shale Gas Drilling in the UK after the Task Force Report?
work of this Task Force coincides with a strong push by the UK government for
onshore shale gas drilling. Following the release of the Task Force’s report, the
UK’s Oil and Gas Authority announced on December 17 an offering of new licenses
for onshore unconventional exploration of oil and shale gas. Companies
receiving the licenses will need to secure approvals, including applicable
permits from the UK’s Environment Agency, and it may take several years before
drilling begins under these licenses. The current government has expressed
strong support for promoting shale gas exploration, and the offer of new
licenses is the latest in a series of government actions to further that end,
including the recent approval of a measure to allow shale gas drilling below
national parks in the UK.
regarding the Task Force and its findings and conclusions may be found here.
For further information, please
contact Vinson & Elkins lawyers Andrew Stewart, Chris, Strong, Jay Rothrock, or one of the members of
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