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United Kingdom

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Multiple studies indicate that the UK’s shale basins contain substantial volumes of recoverable reserves. For example, a report published in 2012 by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) observed that, by analogy with comparable shale gas plays in America, the UK’s recoverable shale reserves could be as large as 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) (or 5.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf)).1 By comparison, DECC estimated that the undiscovered conventional onshore gas resources in the UK are between 2-6 bcm.2

The UK has two major onshore shale gas formations (each comprised of a number of basins)3:    

  • The Northern Petroleum System – includes isolated structural basins and troughs stretching across northern England and southern Scotland. These formations contain organic-rich shale formations of Carboniferous age.4 The Bowland Shale is particularly noteworthy, as it has been the focus of the small amount of exploration drilling that has occurred to date.5
  • The Southern Petroleum System – includes the Wessex and Weald basins in southern England, which extend from central England to the English Channel. These basins contain Jurassic-age, oil-prone shale.6 A 2016 study by the British Geological Survey estimated the Weald basin to hold a total of about 1.1 billion barrels of shale oil (the recoverable amount remains unknown), but no significant deposits of gas.7


Source: DECC's report entitled "The Unconventional Hydrocarbon Resources of Britain's Onshore Basins - Shale Gas" (August 2011)

Despite these resources, hydraulic fracturing remains controversial.8 Scotland, for example, announced a temporary moratorium on shale gas extraction in January 2015, and in June 2016 the Scottish parliament voted in favor of a ban.9 In October 2017, Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse announced that Scotland’s existing moratorium would continue “indefinitely,” further explaining that this action “effectively ban[s]” unconventional development.10 After an operator challenged the October 2017 announcement, a court held that there is no ban currently in force.11 Thus, the operator lost its challenge, and Minister Wheelhouse’s October 2017 statement was a “mistaken” reflection of Scotland’s legal position.12 Thus, the public policy process surrounding the future of hydraulic fracturing in Scotland remains ongoing.13

Still, there is cause for optimism for the future of the UK shale gas industry. A move for a UK-wide moratorium was defeated in January 2015 (though the pro-fracking government was forced to accept certain proposals to tighten environmental regulations on fracking),14 and, in December 2015, an independent Task Force on Shale Gas published a report concluding that exploratory drilling in the UK should begin in earnest.15 Moreover, the Oil and Gas Authority held the 14th round of onshore licensing in December 2015, awarding 159 new “blocks” under 93 licenses,16 75% of which were reported to be shale related.17 By late 2016, three operators in the UK had received approval for horizontal drilling activities,18 and two of those approvals also authorized hydraulic fracturing activities. The final consents necessary for hydraulic fracturing at the first of these wells were obtained in July 2018.19 At that time, two horizontal wells had been successfully drilled, and the operator expected initial hydraulic fracturing activities at the first of these wells to begin in late 2018.20 Initial flow tests of the well will run for about six months before connection to the gas transmission system.21 In order to prevent disruptions by protestors, the operator successfully obtained injunctions to prevent trespass at the well site.22

In mid-2018, the UK’s Tory government declared shale gas development an effort of “national importance,” which could “deliver substantial economic benefits.”23 The Labour Party, on the other hand, continues to support a ban on hydraulic fracturing, although there are reports of internal division on this point.24 Meanwhile, as of September 2018, the UK stands on the brink of its first commercial production via hydraulic fracturing.25               

Statutory and Regulatory Framework

Even though industry has expressed great interest in developing the UK’s shale gas industry, some portions of the British public have expressed strong reservations about the environmental and health and safety impacts of shale operations.26 Environmental concerns over the exploration of shale gas became prominent in the UK following allegations that the hydraulic fracturing activities caused two minor earthquakes registering 1.5 and 2.3 magnitude on the Richter scale in April-May 2011 near its well site in the Northern Petroleum System.27

As a result of the earthquakes, the government halted shale operations in the UK from May 2011 until December 2012.28 During this moratorium, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering studied the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, and published a 2012 study concluding that such risks can be effectively managed through enforced operational best practices.29 The study recommended new regulations for groundwater monitoring, well integrity, and seismic surveys near shale gas wells.30 After considering these recommendations and input from other groups, DECC crafted a new regulatory regime for shale development.31 Beginning in December 2012, UK shale gas operators were required to evaluate potential seismic hazards posed by hydraulic fracturing, implement seismic monitoring of each well site area, and propose steps to reduce the likelihood of future earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing.32

Companies must receive a Petroleum Exploration and Development License (PEDL) from the UK government in order to explore and develop shale gas and other petroleum resources.33 Field development requires the consent of both the national and local governments.34 Until April 2015, DECC was the licensing authority for the UK; this task now falls to the Oil and Gas Authority.35

Though not explicitly mentioned in the legislation, shale gas is governed by existing UK legislation relating to the exploration and production of petroleum resources—namely the UK Petroleum Act 1998.36 For example, the Infrastructure Act 2015 amended the Petroleum Act 1998 to establish additional safeguards for hydraulic fracturing activities in England.37 The Act places restrictions on hydraulic fracturing that occurs less than 1000 meters below ground and more stringent controls on hydraulic fracturing that occurs more than 1000 meters below ground.38 Additionally, the Secretary of State may only issue a consent to drill a well covered by an onshore license if that consent:

  • generally prohibits hydraulic fracturing at a depth of less than 1000 meters; and
  • requires a hydraulic fracturing consent activities at a depth of 1000 meters or more (known as a “Hydraulic Fracturing Consent”).39

Before the Secretary of State may issue a Hydraulic Fracturing Consent:

  • an environmental impact assessment must be carried out;
  • independent inspection of the well’s integrity must be made;
  • methane levels in groundwater must be monitored in the period of 12 months prior to hydraulic fracturing;
  • methane emissions into the air must be monitored for the period of the permit;
  • the area must not be within a “protected groundwater area” and “other protected areas” (these terms were later defined by regulation issued in March 201640); and 
  • the substances to be used in hydraulic fracturing operations must be approved by the relevant environmental regulator (the UK Environment Agency, for wells situated in England, or the Natural Sources Body for Wales, for those in Wales).41

As noted above, the terms “protected groundwater area” and “other protected areas” were defined by regulations that were approved by Parliament in March 2016.42 Under the new regulations, “protected areas” are defined to include land up to 1200 meters in depth in national parks, areas of outstanding beauty, and world heritage sites.43

Prior to commencing any drilling operations, licensees must also notify the UK’s Environmental Agency, which will advise the licensee on the permit requirements for the activities being proposed.44 Environmental permit regulations cover, among other things, the protection of water resources, the approval of the use of chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluid, waste treatment and disposal, management of any naturally occurring radioactive materials, and flaring activities.45

At least 21 days prior to drilling operations, operators must also notify the UK Health and Safety Executive, who will examine well design and confirm whether the proposed drilling operations pose any risks to health and safety.46

As the country moved closer towards its first commercial production via hydraulic fracturing in 2017 and 2018, the UK government made several incremental regulatory reforms. For example, in January 2018, Energy minister Greg Clark announced new “financial resilience” criteria that operators must meet before undertaking hydraulic fracturing activity.47 In May 2018, the UK government announced a variety of reforms to further support the fledgling shale industry, including the streamlining of gas planning applications and funding a $2.2 million shale support fund to help develop local expertise and establish an environmental regulator.48 The announced reforms also include a consultation process to assess whether exploration wells should be permitted without the need for a planning application.49 

Last updated September 2018.

1 DEP’T OF ENERGY & CLIMATE CHANGE [“DECC”], THE UNCONVENTIONAL HYDROCARBON RESOURCES OF BRITAIN’S ONSHORE BASINS – SHALE GAS 1 (2012), available at www.og.decc.gov.uk/UKpromote/onshore_paper/UK_onshore_shalegas.pdf (“DECC Report”).

2 DECC Report at 1.

3 U.S. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION, WORLD SHALE GAS RESOURCES: AN INITIAL ASSESSMENT OF 14 REGIONS OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES VII-22 (April 2011), available athttp://www.adv-res.com/pdf/ARI%20EIA%20Intl%20Gas%20Shale%20APR%202011.pdf (“EIA Initial Assessment of 14 Regions”).

4 EIA Initial Assessment of 14 Regions at VII-22.

5 TASK FORCE ON SHALE GAS, FIRST INTERIM REPORT: PLANNING, REGULATION, AND LOCAL ENGAGEMENT 8 (March 25, 2015), available athttps://www.taskforceonshalegas.uk/reports.

6 EIA Initial Assessment of 14 Regions at VII-27.

7 Daniel J. Graeber, British government sees future potential for shale oil, UPI (Oct. 13, 2016), https://www.upi.com/British-government-sees-future-potential-for-shale-oil/6301476362622/.

8What is fracking and why is it controversial, supra at note 1.

9 Libby Brooks, Scottish politics: Scottish parliament votes narrowly in favour of ban on fracking GUARDIAN.COM (June 1, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/01/scottish-parliament-votes-narrowly-in-favour-of-ban-on-fracking-snp

10Scottish government backs ban on fracking, BBC (Oct. 3, 2017), https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-41484153.

11Judge says fracking not banned in Scotland, BBC (June 18, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-44532985.

12 Id.

13 Id.

14 Damian Carrington, Tories Forced Into U-Turn on Fast-Track Fracking After Accepting Labour Plans, GUARDIAN.COM (Jan. 26, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/26/conservatives-u-turn-fracking-labour-cuadrilla-drilling-ban

15 TASK FORCE ON SHALE GAS, FINAL CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS 1 (Dec. 15, 2015), available athttps://www.taskforceonshalegas.uk/reports.

16 Oil and Gas Authority, Oil and Gas: Onshore Exploration and Production, GOV.UK (last visited Feb. 3, 2016), https://www.gov.uk/guidance/oil-and-gas-onshore-exploration-and-production#licensing.

17 Press Release, Oil and Gas Authority, New onshore oil and gas Licences offered, GOV.UK (Dec. 17, 2015), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-onshore-oil-and-gas-licences-offered.

18 Adam Vaughan, East Midlands site gets green light for shale gas exploration, THE GUARDIAN (Nov. 15, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/15/east-midlands-site-gets-green-light-for-shale-gas-exploration.

19 Nina Chestney, In first for UK, government clears Cuadrilla to frack shale gas site, REUTERS (July 24, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-shalegas/in-first-for-uk-government-clears-cuadrilla-to-frack-shale-gas-site-idUSKBN1KE231.

20UK’s Cuadrilla completes second shale well, waits for fracking permit, REUTERS (July 17, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/britain-shale-cuadrilla/uks-cuadrilla-completes-second-shale-well-waits-for-fracking-permit-idUSL8N1UD1XT.

21 Id.

22 Id.

23 Editorial, Britain Discovers Shale Energy, WALL ST. J. (May 20, 2018), https://www.wsj.com/articles/britain-discovers-shale-energy-1526854292.

24 Adam Vaughan, Labour is divided over its proposed fracking ban – Cuadrilla chief, THE GUARDIAN (Sept. 16, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/sep/16/labour-is-divided-over-proposed-fracking-ban-cuadrilla-chief-shale-gas.

25 Susanna Twidale, Cuadrilla to start fracking in England in weeks, REUTERS (Sept. 19, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-fracking/cuadrilla-to-start-fracking-in-england-in-weeks-idUSKCN1LZ1D6.

26See, e.g., Frack Off Extreme Energy Action Network, frack-off.org.uk (last visited Feb. 3, 2016), http://frack-off.org.uk/extreme-energies/shale-gas/ (asserting that hydraulic fracturing leads to leaking methane, water contamination, air pollution, radioactive contamination, massive industrialization of the landscape, worsening climate change and earthquakes).

27 See Garry White, Cuadrilla Admits Drilling Caused Blackpool Earthquakes, TELEGRAPH.CO.UK (Nov. 2, 2011), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/8864669/Cuadrilla-admits-drilling-caused-Blackpool-earthquakes.html.

28 Robert J. Alessi, DLA Piper, British Government Lifts Year-old Fracking Moratorium, DLAPIPER.COM (Dec. 20, 2012), https://www.dlapiper.com/en/us/insights/publications/2012/12/british-government-lifts-yearold-fracking-morato__/.

29 Royal Report at 1.

30 Royal Report at 6.

31 Press Release, Department of Energy & Climate Change & The Rt Hon Edward Davey, New controls announced for shale gas exploration, GOV.UK (Dec. 13, 2012), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-controls-announced-for-shale-gas-exploration.

32 Id.

33 Oil & Gas Authority, Oil and Gas: Petroleum Licensing Guidance, GOV.UK (last updated Sep. 7, 2015), https://www.gov.uk/guidance/oil-and-gas-petroleum-licensing-guidance#types-of-licence.

34 TASK FORCE ON SHALE GAS, supra note 15 at 12.

35Oil & Gas Authority webpage, https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/oil-and-gas-authority/about;

36 Ruth Hayhurst, FAQ on the OGA, DRILL OR DROP? (May 12, 2015), https://drillordrop.com/2015/05/12/faq-on-the-oga/. Petroleum Act 1998, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/17/contents.

37 Infrastructure Act 2015, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/7/contents/enacted.

38Id. at § 50.


40 Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations (2016), S.I. 2016/384, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2016/384/note/made.

41See Infrastructure Act 2015, supra at note 67.

42See Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations (2016), supra at note 72.


44 Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Guidance on fracking: developing shale oil and gas in the UK, GOV.UK (Apr. 11, 2016), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/about-shale-gas-and-hydraulic-fracturing-fracking/developing-shale-oil-and-gas-in-the-uk.



47 Susanna Twidale, Britain to tighten financial checks on fracking firms, REUTERS (Jan 25, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-fracking-rules/britain-to-tighten-financial-checks-on-fracking-firms-idUSKBN1FE29P.

48 Nina Chestney, UK announces extra measures to support shale gas development, REUTERS (May 17, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-shalegas/uk-announces-extra-measures-to-support-shale-gas-development-idUSKCN1II1GN.

49 Id.

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