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UK shale legislation – what could (and should) change from 4 June?

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Land access under the Infrastructure Bill

According to reports by the BBC and the Financial Times, Whitehall sources have indicated that the Government plans to propose a new Infrastructure Bill in the Queen’s Speech on 4 June 2014. The Bill may provide for automatic access rights for certain shale developments below a minimum depth, and establish a landowner notification and compensation procedure (with a compensation cap).  Although the focus is expected to be on the facilitation of installation of export pipelines under private land, the legislation may also be relevant to horizontal drilling, well completion and stimulation techniques.

Discussions on horizontal drilling rights in the UK are, however, now well rehearsed. Drilling under private land without the owner’s consent is a trespass; compulsory access rights and compensation mechanisms already exist; but they are untested in the shale context, they involve potentially lengthy procedures, and their application could be subject to judicial review.  In the US, directional drilling techniques have been used (e.g. under Dallas Fort Worth Airport) to avoid unleased land and “set-back” restrictions.  Although the UK already has a long-established conventional onshore industry, such directional drilling techniques are not yet cited as a potential solution (and would not prevent the need to obtain a neighbour’s land access consent).

The land access issue is nevertheless often cited in the UK as a significant reason why, so far, early shale investments and recent consolidation amongst developers have not yet translated into drilling permit applications.  All appreciate that, unless test drilling commences in the UK, and the commercial viability of shale production is proven relatively quickly, further funding may not be forthcoming.  No wonder the Government is keen to be seen removing perceived blocks to development.

Whilst trespass is important, it is perhaps interesting that less focus has revolved so far around related land issues, such as residual and decommissioning liabilities, insolvency, remediation and security concerns. Therefore, if any Infrastructure Bill only tackles the issue of providing greater certainty to developers in relation to land access, there may remain some way to go in encouraging more wholesale shale developments by those who would welcome a further regulatory comfort blanket to overlay the existing, largely comprehensive framework of regulation.

UK onshore licensing round

Perhaps an equally pertinent topic for the time being is what may come to pass in the next UK onshore licensing round.

Whilst the issue of new licences in a new 14th onshore licensing round is not a foregone conclusion, the precursory strategic environmental assessment (which was subject to a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) consultation that closed on 28 March 2014) stated that the option of awarding no licences in the 14th round is: “incompatible with the main objectives” of the Government, and is therefore perhaps unlikely.  Therefore, the issue of what the licence terms will look like is an interesting point of speculation.

The Government may be keen to avoid a two tier system which differentiates between conventional and unconventional developments if possible, particularly given the different approaches already applying to conventional developments onshore versus offshore (e.g. in relation to decommissioning treatment), and given the Wood Report’s recent call for greater integration.  That said, there is a contrary argument that some difference of approach is required, given the substantial depth of shale resources in the UK (being up to ten times thicker than in the US) and given that such thickness may justify multiple horizontal wells being drilled from a single well-pad.  This would suggest that provision should be more formally made to allow multiple developments (conventional or unconventional) to proceed under the same land footprint, at differing depths or horizons, in order to maximise recovery from the resource over a given land area.

It is perhaps also worth considering some example terms from the latest (2008) 13th UK onshore Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence (PEDL), and associated model clauses set out in legislation (Model Clauses), in order to highlight areas which would perhaps suit amendment in the unconventional context:

  • Mandatory relinquishment of 50% of the licence area at the end of the initial term of six years is clearly sub-optimal for shale developers, who need certainty over an area throughout a drilling campaign (although relinquishment may be avoided on a bespoke basis where the regulator considers it necessary to recover petroleum, under Model Clause 4(5)).
  • The second term in a PEDL is currently five years, with a distinct 20-year production period thereafter.  Similarly, this separation does not lend itself well to a pilot / appraisal phase (which is likely to include some production).  Re‑alignment along the lines of a dual appraisal phase, followed by a commercial production phase, may be more suitable.
  • The typical work commitment for the initial term (e.g. drilling one, typically vertical, well and conducting seismic work) could do with tailoring to the unconventional situation, perhaps to include ongoing development obligations after initial appraisal.  Indeed viable seismic may be precluded by landscape issues.  One approach from the US, which may be adapted in shaping work commitments (and indeed relinquishment-related issues), is allowing a large block to be held, so long as the operator maintains a “continuous drilling programme”, meaning that a new well must be started within, say, 180 days of completion of the prior well.  A failure to meet the drilling deadline typically results in the loss of all acreage outside the acreage attributable to the existing wells.  Many private agreements in the US (wishing to encourage drilling and hence maximise economic recovery) incorporate similar arrangements into their commercial lease arrangements.
  • Use of terms like “Oil Field” (which means strata forming part of a single geological petroleum structure, according to Model Clause 23(1), which deals with unitisation), in the context of requirements to unitise, conduct petroleum measurement and elsewhere, could have unintended consequences when applied to the unconventional context.
  • Whilst Model Clause 27 treats data required to be provided by a licensee to DECC as confidential, 27(d) allows the relevant Minister, the relevant local council and others, to publish: “any of the specified data of a geological, scientific or technical kind” after as little as four years.  Clearly this may be of concern to operators and other owners of sensitive intellectual property who are keen to keep such data confidential.  There may be arguments to suggest that the nature of data necessary to commercially “unlock” a shale, for example, should in fact be treated as proprietary and therefore be subject to greater confidentiality restrictions.
  • Perhaps the most stark example of a licence term which may require amendment in the unconventional context, however, is Model Clause 19(1)(d) under the heading “Avoidance of harmful methods of working“, which requires licensees to: “prevent the entrance of water through Wells to Petroleum-bearing strata except for the purposes of secondary recovery…“. Few would argue that water injection for hydraulic fracturing amounts only to secondary recovery, and therefore an amendment to remove any ambiguity would appear prudent.

Whilst regulators may be happy to take a liberal interpretation of existing licence terms when applied to licensees and operators, those decisions may be subject to greater scrutiny by those opposed to shale developments, potentially opening the door to judicial scrutiny.  It remains to be seen whether the Queen’s Speech on 4 June (or the 14th licence round) will put some minds to rest.

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