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What does the Infrastructure Act mean for shale gas?

25 March 2015

Last month the Infrastructure Bill was given Royal Assent by the House of Lords after passing tumultuously through Parliament. The Act includes a wide variety of provisions across the infrastructure brief, including policy on hydraulic fracturing which has largely been the cause for the Act’s rollercoaster ride to publication.

The Act has attracted interest from anti-fracking groups and politicians who have attempted to include a number of amendments designed at restricting hydraulic fracturing in the UK.   A vote for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in England was unsuccessful though an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing in national parks, sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty was introduced.

Although a number of stringent regulatory measures have been introduced into the Act, UKOOG – the representative body for the UK onshore oil and gas industry – has maintained that most of the amendments are in line with best practice and codify the principles of regulators which govern the industry.

There is still some work to do on the Infrastructure Act, with several key clauses and definitions remaining incomplete and as such requiring clarification and definition in secondary legislation. These next steps will be in the hands of the new government by the end of July 2015. 

Specific clarifications include the definition of groundwater source protection zones – so called SPZs. Whether secondary legislation prohibits shale gas developments on all defined categories of SPZs or just the most critical SPZ1 remains to be seen. Similarly, whereas the  Infrastructure Act prohibits shale gas developments within national parks and other protected areas, it is not yet clear if horizontal wells may be drilled from outside to inside such prohibited areas.

Other issues addressed within the Infrastructure Act include;

  • The prohibition of high volume hydraulic fracturing at less than 1000 metres from the surface.

  • The need for baseline monitoring for methane in groundwater for a minimum of 12 months prior to hydraulic fracturing.

  • Independent inspection to determine the integrity of wells.

  • Environment Agency approval for all chemicals used in the fracture fluid.

This year is panning out to be a critical one for the UK shale gas industry. With a general election in May it is looking increasingly likely that the 14th round announcement will take place under a new Government.  With so much uncertainty over the new Government , the  detail and implementation of secondary legislation remains unclear.

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