You may not have seen it in the news but it’s official – I have it from the horse’s mouth (the Government’s Oil & Gas Authority) that as from yesterday, July 21, PEDL 318 and 319 (Petroleum licences covering the Wye Valley and Dean) are operational.
This means we have failed to persuade the Government not to issue the licences it offered (but didn’t issue) in December 2015. One of the first acts of Theresa May’s new Government has been to green-light fracking licences. This doesn’t bode well.
South Western Energy – or potentially another company if they were to pass the licences on – has at least five years (with potential extensions) to explore for gas and oil and as part of the licence, has committed to drill at least one well in this beautiful, and mostly public, land between two rivers, to search for gas or oil.
Even if they are unsuccessful in their search for gas (or oil) – as most people believe they will be – the prospecting work itself carries a great many unacceptable risks.
(Read more in our fact sheets – the first one already needs updating, given the news).
CONTRARY TO WHAT THEY TOLD US, THEY ARE INTERESTED IN SHALE GAS / FRACKING
When we met with South Western Energy they immediately told us they weren’t going to frack (they would leave that to the big boys further down the line) and also that they weren’t interested in looking for shale gas.
But that contradicts what they wrote in their licence application – which I have now obtained following a Freedom of Information request. Here it states clearly they are prospecting for shale gas in the Avon Group limestone – this outcrops out to the Wye Valley and beyond, and lies beneath most of the Forest of Dean coalfield.
While the fruitless but damaging business of looking for Coalbed Methane is bad enough (drilling itself involves putting chemicals in the ground, pumping out all radioactive water from the coal seams, as well as concreting a site the size of two football pitches), our even greater fear is that the gas explorers would want to tap into the rocks around and below the coalfield, through which flows our groundwater – and which the entire ecosystem, flora and fauna are reliant on.
The carboniferous limestone series (there are four layers) is where you find the scowles, caves, iron mines and fossils – including Puzzlewood and Clearwell Caves. The rock was formed from the bones of ancient lifeforms such as brachiopods and crinoids which wallowed in a shallow tropical sea. Where there’s limestone shales, there is potentially shale gas. And getting shale gas out requires fracking…
[the purple and dark blues represent outcrops of the 400+ million year old Silurian layers, the light pink and bright orange the Devonian sandstones (400-350 mil), the turquoise is the Carboniferous limestones (350-310 mil), the yellow the coal measures or Forest of Dean coalfield (approx 300 mil)… all those to the right of the purples are much newer rocks, part of a different geological ‘terrane’, the Worcester Graben/ Charnwood Terrane… the limestone also lies beneath much of the coalfield but not the other layers (as it is newer), while the Devonian sandstones and Silurian layers lie beneath the whole area].
[If we zoom in closer we can see the specific rock types – the Avon Group limestone shales is shaded in grey]
Another anomaly – South Western Energy told us they were interested in exploring for conventional gas in the Devonian red sandstone layers (which cover the entire licencing areas). This prospect is not mentioned in their application. However, they reveal in their application they have their sights set on the Avon Group of limestones – which lies under most of the Forest itself and also much of the Wye Valley.
This is despite South Western Energy claiming to us (and we have this on audio as well as transcript, and said in front of half-a-dozen police officers) that they would not be touching the limestone layers.
The application was made in October 2014 – but if South Western Energy has changed its mind about shale gas prospecting and decided instead on conventional gas from sandstone, surely the terms of the licences are invalid?
WORD FROM THE GOVERNMENT
Here’s what I received in response to my Freedom of Information request from the Oil & Gas Authority:
This shows licences come into play today (question 1 was asking for the application, which was attached in another PDF)…
The Government may have redacted the contact information, but it’s in the public domain anyway so we have it!
… handy that they’ve given us the geologist’s email address, however.
This tallies with what they told us at our meeting. However the assertion that “many thick coal seams left unworked at depth” might well be challenged by those with local mining knowledge, as well as geologists.
South Western Energy told us they could create the geological model on their computer using existing data from boreholes, and without any new seismic tests required. There have been rumours of new boreholes being drilled in the Berry Hill/ Coleford area but drilling boreholes is not an unusual activity. It might become more unusual if it was more than 300m deep, however.
South Western Energy told us – in response to a question from a police officer – that they would not undertake any work without first applying for planning permission.
So within the 88.78 sq km Forest of Dean coalfield (which does cover much of the statutory Forest of Dean) South Western Energy estimate there is between 164 and 324 billion cubic feet of gas, that they have “detailed knowledge of the Coalfield”, “understand the nature of the coals”, and that “CBM has a good chance of success”. Anyone with ANY knowledge of the Coalfield knows there is no gas. SW Energy’s geologist Oliver Taylor was raised in Stroud and seemed confounded when we showed him photographic evidence of miners smoking etc in the pits. He could only claim there are other undocumented seams which don’t outcrop and could contain gas…
So now we come to the revelation they are looking for “shale gas potential in Avon Shales” and will be taking “surface samples”. Why did they tell the Government one thing and us another?
Although only judged as having a “medium chance of success”, South Western Energy claim there is astronomically more gas contained in the shales than in coal – between 6000 and 10500 billion cubic feet.
And finally we come to the third prospect – the Silurian rocks which outcrop between May Hill and Blakeney but lie a long distance beneath the rest of the licencing area, miles down beneath the Devonian old red sandstone. More explanation within this lengthy blog! SW Energy said they would be unlikely to look here, as they are so far down (this would incur lots more expense and a greater gamble).
Yet even more astronomical amounts of gas, apparently, but a “low chance” of success.
To build its geological model, it seems South Western Energy is content to rely on existing data. The limited 2D seismic data from the southwest of the Forest dates from an earlier failed prospect for conventional gas from the 1960s, while the main line – marked in purple – goes through the Usk Valley, which marks the border between the Forest of Dean and South Wales geological structures. The purple line is a “regional profile”
The UK Onshore Geological library and the British Geological Survey both have maps detailing the boreholes, and the data in the public domain for most of them. These records go back to the 1800s, although the boreholes themselves have long vanished.
We investigated the black ‘classified’ dots of unknown date between Edge End and Five Acres and found no trace of any boreholes or recent activities. According to South Western Energy’s geologist Oliver Taylor, there are a few deeper than 300m (we have heard from elsewhere they may be in Noxon Wood, near Bream, but have no confirmation of this), but almost all data is shallow.
As for the “firm” commitment on this licence application to drill one well to 300m depth, this confuses us. Why? Because according to the Government data released in December 2015, the commitment to drill a well was in the eastern blocks SO60 and SO61, not in SO50 and SO51 which cover the Wye Valley.
Also, when we met with the Government at the House of Lords they informed us that South Western Energy propose to drill a “stratigraphic” well (to test rock cores) down to 1,200m and were interested in the range below 600m.
According to this, the eastern side (which also includes a sliver near Sharpness across the Severn) could see one well drilled between now and July 21 2019, but they have the option to drop plans to drill as well.
We’re not sure whether an administrative mistake was made on this form, or the Government made the mistake when it released info to the contrary… or did South Western Energy change its mind?
The whole business is murky and we still have many unanswered questions, aside from “how can this madness even be contemplated?”
South Western Energy reckons it will need to spend £500,000 over the next six years to carry out its exploratory work.
As our investigations have revealed – and at our meeting – it is unclear where this money will come from. The Government decided not to let us see the financial competence assessment – which applicants undergo in order to get licences.
If that isn’t doublespeak, I’m not sure what it is! (Triplespeak, maybe?)
Finally, the end of the exploration period is set for July 21, 2021. However it could be extended as many of those from the last round of onshore PEDLs have for two years.
So in conclusion, the battle continues. We have a former fracking minister (Andrea Leadsom) now in charge of the environment, while the Department of Energy and Climate Change is ditching the climate change tag and fusing business and infrastructure with Greg Clark at the helm, formerly communities secretary who was set to make the decision on fracking in Lancashire. Herefordshire MP Jesse Norman is now a junior energy minister while Mark Harper, Forest of Dean MP, has now left the Government and is on the backbenches. Now is the time to be writing to both Mr Harper and Mr Norman and asking for the licences to be scrapped.
And who to write to now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has replaced the Department for Energy and Climate Change ? Write, email, tweet to our MP, Mark Harper (email@example.com Twitter: @mark_j_harper), and also energy ministers Greg Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @gregclarkmp), Jesse Norman (South Herefordshire MP – email@example.com Twitter: @jesse_norman), Nick Hurd (firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @nickhurdmp), Jo Johnson (email@example.com Twitter: @jojohnsonmp), Margot James (firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @margotjamesmp) and Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE (email@example.com ) Copy (cc) in Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @labourroyall), our supporter in Parliament) urging the Government’s Oil & Gas Authority to cancel PEDLs 318 and 319 covering the Forest of Dean to South Western Energy Ltd or any other operator.
We also have to get involved with the new county Minerals Plan. But that’s the subject of another blog/ update. I’ll end with a plea: stay engaged, read up on the subject and get active in whatever way you can! See our factsheets for suggestions.
Apathy is the enemy, we can and will win but it’ll take a lot of us. But now we know the battle is really on.