What is conventional oil and gas and how is it different from shale oil and gas?
Oil and gas are energy minerals (also known as hydrocarbons) extracted from the ground.
Conventional sources of these minerals are found in porous rocks such as sandstone and limestone, which have interconnected spaces that give rise to permeability and allow oil or gas to flow from a reservoir beneath impermeable layers otherwise known as 'cap-rock'. Conventional extraction of oil and gas generally involves drilling a borehole vertically down to porous rock where oil or gas has formed in a reservoir. The oil and gas flows out of the reservoir and through a borehole under its own pressure. The conventional oil and gas industry is well established in the United Kingdom.
Unconventional oil and gas resources are found in fine-grained sedimentary rocks known as shales. Shales have low permeability, meaning that oil and gas cannot flow to a reservoir and are trapped in rock. Shale oil and gas cannot be extracted using conventional techniques, hence there is the need for hydraulic fracturing ('fracking'). Shale oil and gas is often found at great depths, more than two kilometres below the earth's surface. Due to technological advancements unconventional oil and gas development has become more economically viable.
The stages of oil and gas development
There are three key stages of oil and gas development:
- Exploration - This phase seeks to acquire geological data to establish whether hydrocarbons are present within a particular area. This may involve seismic surveys, drilling and, in the case of unconventional oil and gas, fracking.
- Appraisal - This is where the operator needs further information about the extent of oil and gas resources and its characteristics to establish whether it is commercially/economically viable. This will involve drilling, and in the case of unconventional oil and gas, fracking. It will also involve some site infrastructure to support appraisal activities.
- Production - This is the long-term process of extracting oil and gas which normally involves drilling one or more wells and associated infrastructure such as pipelines, processing facilities, storage tanks, and welfare facilities for site operatives.
Generally, a new and separate planning permission (and all other environmental and safety consents/permits) is required for each stage of oil and gas development. However, in some cases planning permission can be sought for more than one phase of development.
UK Government's oil and gas policy
National energy policy is that oil and gas remain fundamental to energy security, economic prosperity, supporting the transition to a low carbon future, and the quality of life of UK residents. While renewable energy forms an increasing part of the national energy model, oil and gas remain principal components of the energy system. There is also a commitment to maximising indigenous resources, subject to environmental and safety considerations.
In June 2019, with the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019, the UK Government committed to a 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared with 1990 levels. This is referred to as the net zero target. For further information see the Climate Change Act 2008.
The UK Government has explained on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy web page that net zero means "any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage". Net zero does not mean that the use of oil and gas will cease.
The Energy White Paper 2020, while acknowledging that onshore gas represents a much smaller proportion of the domestic supply than potential offshore sources, recognised the transitional importance of natural gas supplies. While it projects a decrease in production of up to 80% by 2050, the projection for demand is forecast to reduce but continue for 'decades to come'. That gas will come from somewhere, and currently the United Kingdom is reliant on imports.
In March 2021, the Climate Change Committee advice to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy noted that even if oil and gas consumption falls in line with the recommended trajectory, it will be challenging to meet the UK's fossil fuel demand, given the decline in North Sea production. This means the UK will continue to need additional gas supplies beyond that available from Europe and the North Sea until 2045 and potentially beyond 2050. For further details, please visit the Climate Change Committees list of letters to the Department for Business, Energy and and Industrial Strategy.
What is the current national planning policy for onshore oil and gas?
Paragraph 211 of the National Planning Policy Framework 2023 (NPPF) requires Surrey County Council (SCC), as the Mineral Planning Authority (MPA), to give great weight to the benefits of mineral extraction, including to the economy, when determining planning applications.
Paragraph 215 of the NPPF requires the MPA to 'plan positively' for all three phases of onshore oil and gas development (exploration, appraisal, and production), whilst ensuring appropriate monitoring and site restoration is provided for.
The NPPF (at Annex 2: Glossary) also identifies oil and gas (including unconventional oil and gas) as 'mineral resources of local and national importance'.
What is the regulatory framework for oil and gas development?
Before an organisation can start exploring for conventional or unconventional oil and gas in Surrey they must:
- Obtain a Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence (PEDL) from the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA).
- Obtain planning permission from SCC. The county council will determine whether the planning application needs to be informed by an Environmental Impact Assessment.
- Obtain an environmental permit from the Environment Agency. There may also be a need to obtain a separate licence from the Environment Agency if more than 20,000 litres of water per day is to be abstracted as part of the development.
- At least 21 days before drilling is planned, the operator must notify the Health and Safety Executive about the design of the well and operational plans to ensure that pollution and accident risks are properly accounted for. For further details, please visit the Health and Safety Executive's web page.
What are oil and gas licenses?
PEDLs are issued by the NSTA for oil and gas development in England. SCC and the Environment Agency do not issue these licences. PEDLs provide organisations with exclusive rights in a particular area to explore for and appraise oil and gas resources and produce oil and gas. Before issuing a PEDL licence the NSTA checks that an operator has the relevant insurance and is technically competent. These licences do not provide for permission to drill. Before any drilling can take place, operators must first obtain all the necessary regulatory approvals including planning permission.
The 14th round of Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing closed on 28 October 2014, and in December 2015, NSTA offered licences for 159 blocks in England. Only one of these was offered in Surrey, and this was a renewal of a previous licence. For a full map of licensing areas, please see the oil and gas licensing information on the UK Government web page.
Figure 1 - Oil and Gas Well Sites in Surrey
The map shows six oil and gas well sites: Loxley, Albury Park, Brockham, Horse Hill, Kings Farm Bletchingley, and Palmers Wood. The map also shows the extent of Petroleum Exploration and Development License Areas.
What is the County Council's role?
SCC is the MPA for Surrey and is therefore responsible for preparing local development plan documents which must provide for all three stages of oil and gas development (exploration, appraisal, production).
The MPA is also responsible for determining planning applications relating to the three stages of oil and gas development (see paragraph 215 of the NPPF 2023).
Is there conventional oil and gas in Surrey?
Surrey is part of the Weald Basin which is one of only two locations in southern England where commercial deposits of oil and gas are thought to exist. There are reserves of conventional oil and gas in the southern parts of Surrey which have been exploited by conventional means for many decades.
Is there shale oil and gas in Surrey?
The Weald Basin in Surrey includes deposits of shale rock deep beneath the surface. A British Geological Survey report from 2014 estimates that there is no significant shale gas potential in the Weald Basin. Shale oil rather than gas is likely to be present in the county. This means that the focus for oil and gas development using fracking is likely to be the north of England for the foreseeable future subject to the UK Government lifting its moratorium on fracking.
What is happening in and around Surrey?
Since the 1950s conventional oil and gas development has occurred fairly widely across the southern part of Surrey. Presently, limited quantities of conventional hydrocarbons are produced south of the North Downs. There are five permitted and operational oil and gas well sites in Surrey which have been developed using conventional techniques:
- Palmers Wood Oilfield, Godstone
- Brockham Well Site, Brockham
- Land off Horse Hill, Horley
- Albury Park Well Site, Albury
Oil and gas
- Land at Kings Farm, South Godstone
Between 1990 and 2019 a total of 480,388 tonnes (0.480 million tonnes [mt]) of oil was produced in Surrey. Over the same period total oil production from UK onshore and offshore oil fields was 2,581.4mt. Consequently, oil production in Surrey accounted for 0.02% of total UK oil production in this period. For a more detailed summary of regional and national oil production, please see BP's Statistical Review of World Energy.
For gas, the total amount produced in Surrey between 1990 and 2019 was 29,015 tonnes (0.029mt). Total gas production from UK onshore and offshore gas fields was 1792.8mt in the same period. Consequently, gas production in Surrey accounted for 0.002% of total UK gas production in this period. This data has been sourced from BP's Statistical Review of World Energy.
Should you wish to view any of the planning documents associated with any of the well sites listed above, you can do so using SCCs online planning application register.
County Council policy and position
What is SCC's position on oil and gas development?
SCC does not promote or oppose oil and gas development. However, as the MPA, it does have a legal obligation to plan for and determine planning applications relating to oil and gas development in the county.
The Surrey Minerals Plan Core Strategy 2011 together with local plans adopted by Surrey's 11 district and borough councils and the NPPF 2023 (NPPF), provides a sound basis on which to determine planning applications for oil and gas development until 2026/7.
SCC is preparing the county's first joint Minerals and Waste Local Plan (MWLP) which is expected to be adopted in 2027 as per the timeline set out in its Minerals and Waste Development Scheme. Further information relating to the preparation of the Minerals and Waste Local Plan, including how the plan will seek to address the challenges of a changing climate can be found on Minerals and Waste Local Plan web page.
At present there are no proposals from the UK Government to remove the requirement for SCC to plan positively for all stages (exploration, appraisal, and production) of oil and gas development in Surrey (see paragraph 215 of the NPPF).
What are the most relevant SCC policies?
Any planning application for mineral development (including exploration, appraisal or production of oil and gas) will be considered on its merits and in the context of the Surrey Minerals Plan Core Strategy 2011 including:
- Policy MC2 - Ensuring the protection of key environmental interests such as protected landscapes, sites of international, European or National importance for nature conservation, and important heritage assets.
- Policy MC3 - Ensuring the highest environmental standards and restoration of land to beneficial after-uses consistent with Green Belt objectives within agreed time limits.
- Policy MC12 – Ensuring that the location of oil and gas development is appropriate and that associated environmental and amenity impacts are negated or otherwise controlled to acceptable levels.
- Policy MC14 – Ensuring that consent for mineral development is only granted where sufficient information has been provided to demonstrate that there would be no significant adverse impacts.
- Policy MC15 – Ensuring that consent for mineral development is only granted where alternatives to road transport are considered, and transportation and access implications are safe or otherwise acceptable.
- Policy MC17 – Ensuring that mineral sites can be restored and managed to a high standard which is sympathetic to the character of the area and capable of sustaining an appropriate after-use.
- Policy MC18 – Enhancing biodiversity and public access and providing climate change mitigations.
What about the impact on climate change?
Climate Strategy 2020 refers to a 'climate emergency' and a commitment to delivering net zero carbon by 2050, in accordance with the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019.
In this regard the NPPF 2023 sets out that the planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future (paragraph 152), but still requires that SCC plan positively for the three phases of oil and gas development (paragraph 215). It records the need to ensure there is a sufficient supply of minerals for the energy that the country needs and that great weight should be given to the benefits of mineral extraction, including to the economy (paragraph 211).
The UK Government's position on oil and gas development is clearly set out in the Energy White Paper 2020 which explains (Chapter 6) that it will continue to play a part in the transition from a fossil fuel economy to one based on clean energy. At present there are no proposals from the UK Government to remove the requirement for SCC to plan for oil and gas development in Surrey.
SCC is preparing the county's first joint Minerals and Waste Local Plan, which is expected to be adopted in 2027 as per the timeline set out in its Minerals and Waste Development Scheme.
Further information relating to the preparation of the MWLP and how it will seek to address the challenges of a changing climate can be found on the Minerals and Waste Local Plan web page.
More broadly, you can find out what SCC is doing about climate change on the Greener Futures Climate Change web page.
Planning application process
What is the planning process for oil and gas development?
Alongside licences and permits, operators must also obtain planning permission prior to any phase (exploration, appraisal, and production) of oil and gas development. SCC, as the MPA, will determine whether a proposal is acceptable in land-use planning terms following consultation with a wide range of stakeholders including the relevant District or Borough Council, the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive, elected Members, and residents.
The planning system controls the development and use of land in the public interest and seeks to ensure that:
- The principle of the development is acceptable having regard to National and local planning policy.
- New development is appropriate for its location taking account of its potential effects (including cumulative effects) on health, the environment, and amenity.
In doing so, the focus will be on whether:
- The development itself is an acceptable use of land.
- The potential impacts of that use on health, the environment, and local amenity are acceptable or could be made acceptable by planning conditions.
Planning decisions are concerned with whether proposed development is an acceptable use of land, rather than the control of processes or emissions where these are subject to separate pollution control regimes (such as those managed by the Environment Agency and District and Borough Councils). The MPA must assume that these regimes will operate effectively.
The MPA will rigorously assess all planning applications for oil and gas development on their individual merits in accordance with the Development Plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise, as required by Section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, Section 70(2) of the Town and Country Planning 1990 Act, and Section 92(5) of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023.
Each phase (exploration, appraisal, production) of oil and gas development requires planning permission, but planning consent can be issued for more than one phase.
What is an Environmental Impact Assessment?
The Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017 (as amended) form part of the development management system in England and enable planning authorities to take account of the environmental implications of development when making their planning decisions. The regulations apply to certain types of development which have the potential to give rise to significant effects on the environment and are in addition to the requirements of planning policy.
An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is mandatory for developments of the types listed in Schedule 1 of the regulations, examples of which include quarries of more than 25 hectares, installations for the disposal of hazardous waste, and proposals for the extraction of more than 500 tonnes of oil or 500,000 cubic centimetres of gas.
For developments of the types listed in Schedule 2 of the regulations, the requirement for EIA will be determined by the planning authority on a case-by-case basis, unless the developer volunteers to undertake an EIA.
Further information relating to the EIA process can be found on SCC's Introducing Environmental Impact Assessment web page.
Will local communities be consulted about oil and gas development?
Public consultation forms an important and essential part of every planning decision taken by SCC. Once a valid planning application has been submitted to the MPA, it be will subject to public consultation as per SCC's Statement of Community Involvement web page.
Depending upon the type of application this will involve a site notice, direct neighbour notification, and an advertisement in a local newspaper. Public consultations relating to oil and gas development will always include a period in which stakeholders can make written representations to the MPA about the proposal.
Material representations or comments made by stakeholders, including residents, will be taken into account by SCC in determining planning applications. SCC has published guidance as to how residents can influence planning decisions, you can find more information on have your say on planning application web page. In addition to this, the Planning Portal has prepared guidance about what may count as a material planning consideration. You can find more information in guidance on the Planning Portal.
Planning proposals, where relevant, will be the subject of consultation with statutory consultees such as the relevant District or Borough Council, Natural England, Historic England, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, Public Health England, and Parish or Town Councils etc. Other organisations with an interest in particular proposals will also be consulted including resident associations and special interest groups.
You can find out how decisions about planning applications are taken on SCC's How are planning applications decided web page.
Can local communities appeal a decision to grant planning permission?
In England, only the applicant has a right of appeal. Where planning permission is refused the applicant has the right to lodge an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate against that decision. If a third-party objects to the grant of planning permission and consent is subsequently granted, they do not have a right of appeal.
However, anyone has the right to challenge the lawfulness of a planning decision through judicial review if they think that decision is unlawful. The scope of judicial review is limited to the lawfulness of decisions, and all applications for judicial review must be made within 6-weeks of a planning decision and require the permission of the Courts to proceed. Anyone seeking to challenge the lawfulness of a planning decision should seek legal advice as soon as possible.
Further information about the Planning Court can be found on the UK Government's Planning Court web page.
How does SCC monitor oil and gas development?
The grant of planning permission for oil and gas development is always subject to a range of planning conditions. Conditions are imposed on planning consents to control development and ensure that its impacts are acceptable.
Further information about the use of planning conditions can be found on the UK Government's National Planning Policy Guidance web page.
The MPA monitors oil and gas development in the county to ensure its compliance with planning conditions. The frequency and type of compliance monitoring is dependent on a range of factors including the nature and scale of the development, its location and proximity to features of importance and residents, and the compliance history of the development.
Further information about compliance monitoring and enforcement including who to contact and how to make an enquiry or complaint can be found on SCC's Planning Enforcement web page.
What is fracking?
As shale oil and gas is more difficult to extract than conventional oil and gas, a technique known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is utilised. For a simple diagrammatic explanation of shale gas and fracking see the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy's shale gas infographic. Fracking is where fluid - usually a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals – is pumped at high pressure into rock to create narrow fractures and paths for oil and gas to flow to the surface. As with conventional extraction techniques, chemicals are used for various reasons including the prevention of bacterial build up in boreholes and to provide lubrication for drilling. Fracking can be employed at the exploration, appraisal, and production stages of oil and gas development.
What concerns are raised about fracking?
Shale oil and gas development raises several environmental concerns in relation to:
- Climate change – shale oil and gas are fossil fuels and although they burn relatively cleanly, their use results in greenhouse gas emissions when combusted and there is a risk of methane leakages during drilling. For further information on this, see the Department of Energy and Climate Change's study on the associated impacts of shale gas production and use. There is also concern that shale oil and gas will divert investment away from the development of renewable energy including the production of biogas from household waste. The North Sea Transition Authority's Oil and Gas Strategy (2021) places an obligation on the oil and gas industry to assist in achieving the UK Government's net zero carbon target by 2050.
- Water consumption – Fracking is water intensive, principally at the production stage of development. Water consumption is regulated by the Environment Agency to ensure that water supplies are not unacceptably impacted by oil and gas development.
- review details of faults in the area.
- monitor background seismicity prior to fracking.
- minimise the amount of fluid used to only that needed to make oil and gas flow.
- introduce a 'flow-back period' after each stage, allowing a reduction in pressure.
- monitor seismic activity in 'real time' and cease operations if seismic events exceed thresholds (greater than ML 0.5).
- publish seismic information on their websites and inform NSTA.
- Groundwater contamination – Shale oil and gas deposits are located below aquifers, so if the casing around the borehole is not adequate, both drilling and fracking have the potential to pollute groundwater. The Environment Agency will ensure that casings around the boreholes are adequate; there is sufficient separation distance (and, therefore, rock) between the fracking activity and groundwater; chemicals used are suitable and properly diluted (should they enter the water supply); and the storage and disposal of waste arising from the development is controlled.
- Seismic activity –Generally relates to the frequency and severity of vibrations or seismic events in a particular region or area. In 2018 fracking at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire triggered several seismic events which contributed to the decision of the UK Government to impose a moratorium on fracking in England. Seismic activity associated with oil and gas development is regulated by the NSTA who requires operators to:
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering has carried out an independent review of the major environmental and geological risks associated with the process of fracking in the UK and the extent to which these risks can be effectively managed. The main conclusion of the Royal Academy of Engineering's shale gas extraction review is that the risks associated with fracking can be managed effectively in the UK provided that operational best practices are implemented and regulated effectively. Public Health England published a review of health impacts associated with shale gas extraction, which concluded that the potential risks are low if the operations are properly managed and regulated. You can find more information on Public Health England's web page.
What is the UK Government's position on fracking?
In 2019, the Oil and Gas Authority (now the NSTA) published a report which determined that current technologies cannot accurately predict the probability of seismic activity associated with fracking. Following these findings, the Government imposed a moratorium on fracking in England. This means that fracking is not allowed to proceed in Surrey. For more information, please see the UK Government's moratorium web page.
Where can I find further information?
General advice and information
- Guidance on fracking: developing shale gas in the UK – Updated 12 March 2019 Guidance on fracking: developing shale gas in the UK - GOV.UK
- Shale Gas and Fracking: House of Commons Library Updated March 2020 Shale gas and fracking - House of Commons Library
- About Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking): BEIS last updated 13 Jan 2017
- About shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) - GOV.UK
Additional technical and environmental advice
- Environmental risks of fracking: - Eighth report of Session 2014 to 2015. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee 21 January 2015
- Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use. DECC September 2013
- The UK Government's response to the Mackay report 24 April 2014
- The British Geological Survey has comprehensive information on the extent of shale gas reserves, how it differs from conventional reserves and the risks associated with extraction
- UK shale gas and the environment: Environmental Data Services (ends). November 2013
The planning and regulatory regime
- Planning Practice guidance for onshore oil and gas July 2013
- Onshore oil and gas exploration and development integration between regulatory agencies March 2013
- Onshore oil and gas exploration in the UK: Regulation and best practice December 2013