(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON, June 6 Britain has had small but
significant onshore oil and gas production for over 60 years.
Ironically, most of the output has come from fields in
prosperous and environmentally sensitive parts of southern
England, where hostility to new drilling and hydraulic
fracturing is strongest.
"It's one thing to have fracking in the vast plains of
America," according to one Conservative Member of Parliament
quoted in the Financial Times recently. "It's a whole different
matter when people will see gas production in the rolling hills
The newspaper noted the petroleum-rich Wessex Basin
corresponds with the heartland of Britain's ruling Conservative
Party. "No fewer than 38 out of 62 MPs in the region have land
with existing oil and gas drilling licences - and 35 of them are
Conservatives" ("Britain's Tory MPs face fracking challenge" May
The political subtext is that while fracking might be
acceptable in northern counties that have struggled to recover
from the collapse of the coal industry and heavy manufacturing
in the 1980s, which tend to support the opposition Labour Party,
it may not be welcome in prosperous rural areas of the south.
The recent Institute of Directors' report on "Getting shale
gas working" concentrated on the benefits in the north, and was
silent about the south. It noted "jobs could be created in parts
of the country that need them most," contrasting the 15 percent
rate of out-of-work benefit claims in the north west with less
than 9 percent in the south east.
So it might come as a surprise to many people that southern
England is already the largest producer of onshore oil and gas
in the United Kingdom.
ONSHORE OIL AND GAS
More than 2,000 onshore wells have been drilled across the
country, with major drilling booms during the Second World War
and then again in the 1980s after the oil shocks, according to
well records published by the Department of Energy and Climate
Onshore fields have produced more than 500 million barrels
of oil, although that compares with 23 billion barrels produced
offshore since 1975, and the pattern is repeated for natural
Onshore fields tend to be small by offshore standards. But
the capital expenditure required to develop them is also smaller
and they continue to provide economically attractive targets,
according to the British Geological Survey (BGS) in a report on
"Onshore oil and gas" published in March 2011.
Onshore petroleum output is dominated by fields in the
Wessex Basin underneath the counties of East and West Sussex,
Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight, extending into the
Oil has also been produced from the East Midlands underneath
Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, and gas from
North Yorkshire and the West Lancashire Basin (Charts 1 and 2).
By far the largest onshore field, however, is Wytch Farm, in
the heart of the Wessex Basin, discovered in 1979, with
estimated recoverable reserves of almost half a billion barrels
UK onshore oil and gas wells: link.reuters.com/ryq68t
Location of wells by county: link.reuters.com/tyq68t
Wytch Farm's output peaked at around 100,000 barrels per day
in 1996. It is the largest onshore field in Europe, and ranks in
the top 10 UK oil fields, including those offshore, according to
Located on the edge of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage
Site, production comes from dozens of wells on several sites,
including some of the longest horizontal wells in the world,
stretching up to 11 kilometres underground beneath Poole Bay,
beneath some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
Wells are screened by thousands of trees to minimise the
Some employ traditional nodding-donkey beam pumps, carefully
painted in forest colours to camouflage them, and with sound
boxes to limit noise to less than 33 decibels. Most, however,
use downhole electric submerged pumps and are virtually
invisible on the surface.
Oil is transported to a loading terminal by a 90-kilometre
pipeline that skirts the southern fringes of the New Forest
Wytch Farm is on a unique scale, but there are other oil
fields in production elsewhere in the Wessex Basin, stretching
from Wareham in Dorset to Goodworth, Stockbridge, Avington,
Horndean and Lasham in Hampshire, and Singleton and Storrington
in West Sussex.
Other reservoirs in use for gas storage and/or oil
production stretch as far north as Palmers Wood, Bletchingley
and Lingfield in the county of Surrey.
These reservoirs are small but not negligible. Estimates put
oil originally in place at 170 million barrels at Stockbridge,
70 million at Singleton and 43 million at Lasham, though the
amount of oil that will eventually be produced will be much
Most reservoirs lie within the boundaries of the South Downs
National Park or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB),
where development is strictly controlled. But well sites are so
well camouflaged they are invisible and virtually unknown, even
to local inhabitants.
More onshore wells have been drilled in the southern
counties of Dorset (264), Hampshire (117) and Sussex (82) than
other part of Britain except Nottinghamshire (575), Lincolnshire
(343) and Lancashire (115), according to DECC.
The full extent of oil and gas production across southern
England is revealed in an extraordinary blog compiled by
geologist Ian West, retired from the University of Southampton
NOT IN MY BACK YARD
Given that southern England is one of the biggest existing
centres of oil and gas production, it is ironic that it has also
become a centre of opposition to hydraulic fracturing for shale
Balcombe in the middle of the South Downs National Park has
become a cause celebre for environmentalists and residents'
groups opposed to fracking. It is also in the heart of the
Wessex Basin and one of the most promising sites for shale gas.
One well has already been sunk in Balcombe, by Conoco in
1986, but it was plugged and abandoned after initial flows
proved disappointing and amid depressed oil and gas prices in
the late 1980s and 1990s. Now Cuadrilla Resources has a
petroleum exploration and development licence covering the area
and hopes to achieve better results by drilling and fracturing
The company suspended its fracturing programme after
pressure pumping one well at Preese Hall in the northern county
of Lancashire, near to a faulted area, triggered a series of
small earth tremors. But it has announced plans to resume
fracturing at another well in the county, and wants to drill,
but not yet fracture, an exploration well in Balcombe later in
"Drilling work will commence in the summer," the company
announced on May 8. "Cuadrilla plans to drill and take samples
of the underground rock in a vertical well drilled to
approximately 3,000 feet. A possible horizontal leg of 2,500
feet may also be drilled ... neither ... will be hydraulically
fractured," the company added.
There is intense concern about the impact that widespread
drilling and fracturing might have on local communities.
"Because of the much more intense nature of the shale gas
extraction process it is associated with much more negative
impacts than conventional drilling. These include leaking
methane, water contamination, air pollution, radioactive
contamination, massive industrialisation of the landscape,
worsening climate change and earthquakes," the Frack Free Sussex
campaign complains on its website.
But given the intense care local authorities have taken to
ensure that conventional oil and gas drilling does not blight
local communities, it seems unlikely they will be any less
careful with unconventional shale production.
Drilling multiple wells from the same site, and employing
long laterals with multi-stage fractures, with careful screening
and camouflaging, could in theory enable relatively large
volumes of oil and gas to be recovered in an acceptable manner.
The main problem is likely to remain traffic management.
There is some doubt about whether shale oil and gas could
ever be produced on a sufficiently large scale to transform
Britain's economic prospects, but there ought to be no barrier
to developing a small but significant industry, even in the
sensitive political and natural landscapes of southern England.
(Editing by Anthony Barker)