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Is Britain floating on a sea of oil and gas? That’s the impression that’s given by the boosters of the shale industry – and not entirely without reason.

Last year, the British Geological Survey reported that huge quantities of natural gas were ready to be ‘fracked’ from the shale formations of northern England. This year, they’ve been looking down south, but found rather less to write home about.

According to Colin Barras of the New Scientist, the key points are as follows:

“The UK’s new oil rush may have ended before it even began. There are several billion barrels of oil under south-east England, according to a new report, but it may not be worth drilling for it.

“The report, by the British Geological Survey, estimates that there are 2.20 to 8.57 billion barrels of oil trapped in the shale rocks of the Weald Basin, south of London. However, it concludes there are no significant gas deposits in the area.

“Energy companies will have to resort to the controversial technology of fracking to get at the oil. But they may decide not to bother, says petroleum geologist Andrew Aplin of Durham University in the UK. That’s because very little of the oil can be reached, even with fracking.”

Though fracking is more commonly associated with gas, it can be used for oil too. However, in the case of the Weald Basin, it would seem to be the wrong kind of oil:

“…the oil in the Weald comes from similar rocks to North Sea oil, which is heavy and viscous. If Weald oil is the same, extraction will be difficult.”

It looks like Sussex won’t be the new Saudi Arabia after all. Oh well (or, rather, no well).

This may be a blessing in disguise – and not because fracking is necessarily dangerous (with proper regulation it need not be). Rather, it’s because the politics of fracking the Home Counties are just too awkward.

Last year, Lord Howell of Guildford – Tory peer, former minister and father-in-law to George Osborne – put his foot in it when he said that fracking was best kept to “large, uninhabited and desolate areas” like “parts of the north-east.” He later apologised saying that he meant to say the north-west. His clarification didn’t really help matters, but the point that he was trying to make – that opposition to fracking is likely to be more intense in the south than the north – is probably true.

The Weald Basin is already the epicentre of protest against the nascent shale industry. It forms the backyard of the Green Party’s base of operations in Brighton – and the Greens are the only party of any significance that opposes fracking on principle. Any sign of a protest vote in local elections would risk an HS2-style rebellion from the region’s Tory MPs.

Needless to say, it would be absolutely outrageous if the Government were to hold back shale gas development in selected parts of the country for purely political reasons. Any such move would be deeply and justifiably resented in the north – and provoke entrenched opposition to fracking everywhere.

Of course, Lord Howell is no longer a minister – and all the signs are that the emerging planning regime will be geographically neutral. Still, it is politically convenient that the BGS assessment of the south should stand in such contrast to the north:

“Northern England looks more promising. An earlier BGS survey found evidence of larger deposits of shale gas, perhaps 37.7 trillion cubic metres.”

These surveys are by no means the last word on the location of Britain’s shale resources – but if, out of geological necessity, the industry gets going in the north, then ministers are likely to breathe a sigh of relief.

One further observation: should fracking turn out to be a largely northern affair, then the same should apply to the distribution of any tax revenue wind-fall from the industry. Indeed, there might be a lot less opposition to new development in general if local disruption were more closely balanced by local benefits.

9 comments for: It’s grim down south – or why ministers would rather not find shale gas under Sussex

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