Any company wishing to explore for or extract gas using fracking in the UK has to complete a number of regulatory steps before they can begin.
Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) are issued by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA). The licences give operators exclusive rights to explore for and extract oil and gas in a specific area but not the right to drill.
As part of the petroleum licensing process, and prior to awarding a licence, the OGA assesses the operator’s technical, financial and environmental expertise. The OGA also checks prior to the drilling and, where relevant, production stage that the company has sufficient funding and appropriate insurance.
Once an operator is awarded a PEDL, they must go through the process outlined below in order to drill an exploration well, whether the well is to be fracked or not. If the company decides it would like to frack, then it must take the extra steps as described.
Planning permission for any project is required from the Mineral Planning Authority, which is typically part of the local County Council. The Mineral Planning Authority assesses whether the proposed development is suitable for the site and considers issues such as effects on traffic due to the site, noise and visual impact. As part of the process the Mineral Planning Authority also consults the Environment Agency to check that any environmental risks have been adequately addressed.
The Mineral Planning Authority will review the formal application to determine if there is a need for a full Environmental Impact Assessment on a case by case basis. Operators will also need to present to the Mineral Planning Authority their plan for restoration of the planned development site, which will outline actions that the operator proposes to take once operations have finished.
Separate planning permission is required for the exploration and production phases on any site.
Before any oil or gas operation commences in England, operators must submit details of their plans to the Environment Agency (EA) for assessment of risks to the environment and the issuing of relevant permits. The EA’s responsibilities include:
The EA assess the risk to the environment and will not issue permits if the level of risk is assessed as unacceptable. They also give members of the public the opportunity to raise any issues they think they should consider through an open consultation. Operators must meet all baseline monitoring requirements set out in planning permission and environmental permits before drilling can begin and must also notify the environmental regulator of their intention to drill.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regulates the safety of the operations. It is responsible for ensuring that risks to workers and the public are reduced as far as possible. HSE regulations require an independent and competent person to examine the well’s design and construction to ensure that measures are in place to control major hazards to people from well-related activities and accidents.
The operator must notify the HSE of the well design and operation plans at least 21 days before drilling is due to start.
Once permissions have been obtained from the relevant regulators, all relevant consultees have been notified and permits are in pace, the OGA is responsible for issuing a consent to drill.
The planning and environmental permitting steps must be repeated at each exploratory stage of the site’s development, to drill any further wells and before the site goes into production.
If company decides to proceed with fracking, then there are further regulatory steps they must complete. HSE inspectors will inspect the site with officers of the EA before any fracking takes place.
If a company wishes to frack a well, they must produce a Hydraulic Fracture Plan and submit it to the OGA. This plan must include an evaluation of the risks of a seismic event and must include appropriate plans to monitor seismicity before, during and after the well operations.
The OGA will expect operators to show a full understanding of the risks of fracking. Operators will need to inspect the historical and background seismicity and any stress or tension in the ground to understand the risk of creating earth tremors.
A detailed Hydraulic Fracture Plan to address the risk factors for each well is required as part of the application, and both the EA and HSE will also review the plan.
The Infrastructure Act 2015 introduced 13 additional conditions which must be satisfied before a company is able to frack. These include requirements to have independent well inspections, conduct monitoring of methane in groundwater and monitor methane emissions (including baseline monitoring 12 months prior to any fracking).
Well operators have a legal duty to manage and control the risks to their employees, contractors and the general public. The HSE monitors well operations to check these legal duties are carried out. Its specialists will check construction matches the design by reviewing the operations reports it receives from the well operator and conducting site visits as considered appropriate based on activity and risk.
The HSE intends to jointly inspect drilling and fracking operations with the EA during the exploratory phase. Conditions attached to permits will set out the minimum level of site-based monitoring and reporting. The EA and HSE inspectors can visit any site at any time if there is a matter of concern.
Planning authorities are responsible for enforcing any conditions attached to the planning permission. For example, this may include monitoring of noise or dust levels.