Everything you wanted to ask about fracking in London…

December 2014: Fracking of shale gas has been added to the mix of energy issues that have dominated headlines over the past year. A surprising element to the debate however has been the potential for fracking gas in London.

Things were kick started by the Mayor back in 2013 (2 July) with a letter to the Times, raising concerns about how London might be facing future powe blackouts, where he also added if reserves of shale can be exploited in London we should leave no stone unturned, or unfracked, in the cause of keeping the lights on” (Times letter – behind paywall – here; letter also covered in following Guardian article). The Mayor similarly supported the wider use of fracking in an article in The Sun in September 2013.

Fast forward to October 2014 where a quite amazing press release from the London Assembly Conservative Party announced that “London needs to tap into £94bn oil and gas industry to create 46k jobs“, with Conservative London Assembly Member Tony Arbour quoted as saying “London could benefit from this Weald Basin industry, which is on the verge of massive growth”. The huge numbers involved not surprisingly got a fair deal of media attention (Evening Standard article; London Live debate).

The press release was the subject of a question by Tony Arbour AM to the Mayor on 22 October (a  video of the debate can be seen via the following press release by Jenny Jones AM). Here the Mayor quickly performs a u-turn on on his previous comments stating at the outset of the debate that: “I would love to get fracking in London.  Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that there is any exploitable shale gas in the London region, much to my disappointment, if I may say.  That is what the geological survey says.”

Mr Arbour goes on to clarify to the Mayor that his question is focussed instead around the potential benefits he believes London could tap into as a result of fracking south of London (the Weald Basin stretching over areas of Sussex, Surrey and Kent). Agreeing with this, the Mayor goes on to say what is holding back fracking in the UK is current legislation which prevents people from owning the  rights to hydrocarbon resources under their properties: “That is the change that needs to be brought into the law to give people the rights to the stuff that exists beneath their properties”. Mr Arbour proposes that the Mayor could introduce a Private Members’ Bill next year on this issue if entering Parliament…the Mayor muses he might be “a future of Secretary of State for Energy”!

Turning to the press release, its calculations are based around the British Geological Survey (BGS) estimates that there are 4.4bn barrels of shale oil in the Weald Basin, which is just south of London. The BGS survey was undertaken for DECC and published in May 2014. What is not mentioned in the press release is that the BGS study also states clearly [p4] that “It should be emphasised that these ‘oil-in-place’ figures refer to an estimate for the entire volume of oil contained in the rock formation, not how much can be recovered….There is a high degree of uncertainty in these figures. Indeed, there is a chance that there may be little or no ‘free oil’.”

This City Hall fracking debate was soon followed [5 November press release] by a majority vote from the London Assembly stating it “does not support any fracking activities within the boundaries of Greater London.”

Whilst this was all happening, a new company – London Local Energy –  announced it had actually applied for a license to frack in London. According to the BBC “London Local Energy has applied for permission to frack three blocks of land, two of which cover an area from Harrow in the North West to near Downing Street in central London.” Nick Grealy of London Local Energy set his thoughts behind this venture in an article on his blog – No Hot Airhere.

Some detail was really needed on what the exact development rules for fracking in the capital actually were. Hence, it’s useful to see that Murad Qureshi AM asked the Mayor a series of questions in November to understand how London’s planning regime would operate in this instance. Links to all the questions/answers are below: a summary to each answer is provided below also.

Q1. How does the Mayor’s spatial planning strategy for London, the London Plan, view fracking planning applications?

  • It’s really up to boroughs in the first instance: the London Plan itself “does not contain an explicit policy on fracking” [though it does on lots of other energy issues – follow links from here for further details].

Q2. What does the Mayor’s Sustainable Design and Construction Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) say on fracking?

Q3. What noise regulations are in place to deal with fracking installations in London?

Q4. What assessments is the Mayor proposing to undertake to provide an evidence base on the potential for fracked shale gas sourced in London?

  • The Mayor restated his new position that “it currently looks unlikely that there is any exploitable shale gas in the London region” and consequently “my officers are not currently undertaking assessments on the potential for shale gas extraction in London or undertaking studies on potential outputs.”

The same answer provided to Q4 was referenced for each of the specific questions listed below:

The Mayor confirms in Q7 that none of his officials have met with the government’s main fracking section, the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (OUGO)Some six weeks after the question (Q8) was raised – at the time of writing –  the Mayor hasn’t confirmed if he has had any meetings with fracking companies. The Mayor’s Environment and Energy advisor (Q9)and Deputy Mayor for Planning (Q10) however both confirmed that they had not had any meetings with fracking companies.The Mayor did also confirm that neither he or any of the GLA has as yet met with London Local Power [typo on question – should London Local Energy].

So, despite the Mayor’s strong endorsement for fracking, not only nationally, but also in London (and of course, that huge support for fracking from his fellow Conservative members of the London Assembly), it appears that no analysis has been undertaken by the GLA to consider how fracking would impact London; no actual work on fracking has been commissioned by the Mayor;  the Mayor doesn’t really have much in terms of power to support fracking development – it’s largely up to the boroughs; and after all the Mayor has said, he  doesn’t actually believe there’s any real potential for fracking in London anyway. So, it’s probably quite unlikely that the Mayor will be writing again in national newspapers that fracking should take place in London…

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