The onshore oil industry is often overlooked and the latest news that there could be up to 100 billion barrels of oil beneath the South of England has surprised many. However, on-shore production is more prevalent worldwide than people realise.
In recent years the onshore oil and gas industry has been scrutinized, most commonly in terms of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), however onshore production of fossil fuels has been in existence for over 150 years. The first onshore commercial oil well was developed in 1859 and the first patent for fracking equipment quickly followed in 1865! In comparison, the first working offshore oil well didn’t emerge until the 1890’s in Summerland, USA. Eight of the top ten on-shore oil fields are now in the Middle East, with the balance in Venezuela and the US.
The UK onshore Oil and Gas industry also dates back to the 1850’s, but it was post World War 2 that activity accelerated. The wars highlighted the need for Britain to produce its own oil rather than relying on imports, so legislation was introduced to enable companies to explore onshore for hydrocarbons more readily. In 1973, Wytch Farm Oilfield in Eastern Dorset was opened and today it is the largest onshore oilfield in Europe. The UK has drilled over 2,000 wells and currently produces up to 25,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, at 120 sites.
The reports that there is oil under the Weald basin (Gatwick area) is not new, but the quantity now believed to be beneath this part of the English countryside most certainly is. While it is estimated that “only” 5-15% of the estimated 100 billion barrels could feasibly be recovered, it has been suggested that by 2030, this could be producing 10 to 30% of UK demand.
Because it is held in rocks that are naturally fractured, this “gives strong encouragement that these reservoirs can be successfully produced using conventional horizontal drilling and completion techniques.” It has been stated that hydraulic fracturing, pumping water, sand and chemicals into rocks at high pressure, is not required to tap into this oil reserve, removing the environmental issues directly associated with this method of extraction. Nevertheless, there will still be significant obstacles to overcome.
This is a densely populated part of the world, so resistance from residents concerned about the impact on their local environment seems inevitable. Protesters will argue that the need to prevent climate change requires up to 80% of fossil fuels to be left in the ground, starting with Horse Hill. There are also the usual safety concerns to be addressed, not least of which will be the various gas hazards that oil production is associated with including fugitive releases, flammable and toxic gas leakage, confined spaces and chemical exposures.
Along with many others we will be watching to see how this vast potential could be realised, whilst minimising environmental and social impact. Questions we will be looking to answer will be ‘how might this affect the declining refining industry in the UK’ and ‘will the location of this feedstock reinvigorate the need for localised processing capability’?