This is not a drill
Is Swanage really a likely location for fracking? Joël Lacey finds out
Published in January ’17
Ever since whale oil started to be replaced as a fuel oil in lamps by kerosene, but particularly since the advent of the automobile, getting crude oil and gas out of the ground has been an economic issue.
In Dorset – where there has been a nodding donkey pump at Kimmeridge since 1961 and Europe’s largest onshore oilfield at Furzey island, which has been pumping crude oil, gas & LPG since 1979 – exploration and exploitation of oil and gas is hardly anything new.
Over the last decade, though, the issue of where and how fossil fuels are extracted from the ground became much more controversial (from an ecological point of view) with the widespread advent of what is known as unconventional hydraulic fracturing, or massive hydraulic fracturing, more widely known as ‘fracking’.
The idea of water flooding – pumping incompressible fluids into oil and gas fields to crack (fracture) the rocks in which gas or oil are held – is hardly new; it was first used in 1947 in the United States. This is known as conventional hydraulic fracturing and has been used in onshore and offshore gas and oil fields around the world to increase the yield extracted from those fields or to get the last out of an expiring field.
Massive hydraulic fracturing, as its name suggests, involves pumping a much greater volume of fluids at higher pressures along with other chemicals to aid in the keeping open of fissures cracked by the fluids, and is used to get oil and gas from fields where the yields are much more marginal. When relatively shallow fields were easy to find and access, this unconventional method was simply financially unviable. As the price of crude oil rose to $110 a barrel, fracking, particularly in the US, became a financially viable option compared with imported supplies.
As that shale gas revolution swept the United States, companies started looking at the possibility of introducing similar schemes in the UK and a flood of new exploration licences were issued to companies looking to cash in on the possibilities.
Initial experimental drilling in Lancashire was halted after a small earthquake was attributed to the activity. Those against the practice of massive hydraulic fracturing started to get organised and opposition to any further schemes quickly appeared anywhere around the country.
One of the newer oil exploration companies, InfraStrata, obtained a temporary licence to drill for the purposes of exploration and analysis at California Quarry in Swanage, which is where the question as to whether there would be any fracking in Purbeck came to life.
In August 2015’s edition of the Purbeck Gazette, InfraStrata CEO, Andrew Hindle laid out the company’s plans (see below for full statement) assuring objectors, amongst other things, that InfraStrata’s plans did not include fracking.
In the meantime, though, global forces were at work. The organisation of Oil of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and the Saudi government in particular, kept oil production high – even after the financial crash of 2008 had reduced demand – in part to weaken the Iranian economy, but also to damage the US shale gas and petroleum producers’ profits.
In November 2015, just three months after their August statement, InfraStrata announced it has decided to concentrate on its gas storage business in Northern Ireland and signed Sale and Purchase Agreements with Corallian Energy Limited and Osmington Holdings Limited transferring the temporary exploratory drilling licences to those companies (the latter being a wholly owned subsidiary of the former) in return for a future promise of a small percentage of any future exploitation profits.
In the autumn of 2016, concerned that local councils had not done enough to forever bar the prospect of fracking, self-styled ‘protectors’ moved onto land adjacent to the site to prevent any drilling from taking place before the temporary licence elapsed. There has been a lot of quite vocal protest, but little action anywhere else. The licences to explore were temporary, but whilst their uptake was less worthwhile when oil prces were low, with OPEC having agreed a cut in production to boost world oil prices, the viability of any small-scale exploration is likely to become more and more worthwhile as time goes on.
Whether there is any further oil or gas accessible from the California Quarry site and indeed, if there is, the means by which they might be extracted in Swanage are all moot points until the results of any initial drilling are actually obtained. Given that the protectors stayed on site until the exploratory licence had elapsed, preventing any activity from taking place, it will remain as a moot point, until and unless someone seeks to reapply for an exploratory licence to do any kind of drilling
So, the answer to the question: ‘Will there be fracking in Swanage?’ is currently ‘no’, and is likely to remain that way, as one can assume the passage of further temporary licences through the planning system would be fiercely resisted.
INFRASTRATA’S SUMMER 2015 STATEMENT
‘InfraStrata has planning permission to drill from onshore at California Quarry to a prospect offshore deep beneath the seabed.
The project targets limestones and sandstones (not shale) and will use conventional methods, not hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
The three-acre site for the exploratory well lies within California Quarry, southwest of Swanage in Dorset. It is on a previously quarried area of a working quarry away from residential areas and has been chosen carefully to minimise the impact on neighbours. It is screened by mature trees to the north and not overlooked by residential properties on the other three sides.
The project includes the construction of an enclosed well site compound within the three-acre site comprising a flat stone surface, soil screening, containment bunds and a security fence. Using conventional directional drilling, the well will reach a depth of approximately 2000 metres (6,600 feet) below the sea to the south of the site.
There are three phases to the drilling process:
1. Construction of the well site – expected to take up to eight weeks.
2. The assembly and installation of drilling equipment and facilities and drilling of the exploratory well – expected to take up to eight weeks.
3. Should oil or gas be encountered, the drilling rig would be demobilised and InfraStrata would undertake a long-term test with the well to establish whether it could produce oil or gas commercially using conventional methods. Any subsequent development of the site would require planning permission. If no commercial oil or gas are encountered, then the well will be plugged and abandoned and the well site restored to its original state.
He also said: ‘InfraStrata will not be able to commit to a drilling rig until the 2D seismic data has been acquired, processed and interpreted. In addition, the proposed well is an onshore to offshore well and it is necessary for the area from which a well is drilled to be held under a petroleum licence, either by InfraStrata or by a third party. This will need to await the results of the 14th Landward Licensing Round, which is not expected until later in the year. These factors mean that it will not now be possible for the well to be drilled before February 2016. Because our planning permission restricts drilling to between October and March each year, there will not be time to complete the programme in 2016. With this in mind, we plan to drill in winter 2016/17 instead.’