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New rules on land access aimed to boost fracking

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The Government support of fracking was reiterated recently with proposed new rules regarding rights to access land. The proposal is that shale oil and gas companies are granted access to land below 400m from the surface. Those living above the land would be paid £20,000 per well in compensation. This would be on top of the £100,000 per site already announced for those communities living above horizontal pipes under ground.

The proposals were announced by Energy Minister Michael Fallon who confirmed the Government's support for shale and geothermal exploration to progress. He said that the new proposals do not affect the existing system for gaining access to rights on the surface, but offer a fair deal for communities in return for underground access at depths so deep they will have no negative impact on landowners.

The consultation on these proposals coincides with a new report by the British Geological Survey which estimates there are 4.4bn barrels of oil in shale rocks in the Weald Basin which covers areas including Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent. However, there is "no significant gas resource" and as neither the rock nor the oil are of the optimal quality only a very small percentage of the Weald oil resource might be recoverable.

The fracking process involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock at high pressure. Small particles (usually sand) are pumped into the fractures to keep them open when the pressure is released, so gas can flow into a well which usually runs to the shale layer and then horizontally along it. British Geological Survey studies suggest the areas with most potential for shale gas exploration are those where existing conventional gas has been found. There are currently around 176 licences for on shore oil and gas in the UK (Petroleum Exploration Development Licences).

There has been widespread opposition by environmental activists who have demonstrated around the country. Following some minor earthquakes near Blackpool in 2011, a report published in June 2012 concluded that fracking was safe if adequately monitored. A Public Health England report in 2013 also concluded that the risks to public health from exposure to emissions from shale gas extraction are low if operations are properly run and operated. However, those opposed to fracking remain unconvinced by these reports and demonstrations continue.

Fracking is regulated in the UK in several overlapping ways. In addition to a licence for onshore oil and gas activities, the Operator must obtain planning permission, a Permit from the Environment Agency, Consent from the Department of Energy and Climate Change and approval from the Health and Safety Executive.

One thing is absolutely clear - the government's support for the fracking industry continues, and measures like the one proposed will speed up the introduction of fracking and be welcomed by those in the industry.