United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (“UKOOG”), the representative body for the UK onshore oil and gas industry, have published guidelines for establishing environmental baselines that aim to identify variations in environmental conditions which may be attributable to onshore hydrocarbon activities.  The UKOOG guidelines are summarised below.

Industry Regulators

The guidelines note that the UK’s onshore hydrocarbon industry is one of the most highly regulated in the world – four principal groups of regulators, namely; DECC, Mineral Planning Authorities (“MPAs”), the environmental regulators (such as the Environment Agency and SEPA) and the Health and Safety Executive, share the task of ensuring compliance with EU directives and that operations are undertaken safely, economically efficiently and in such a way as to protect the environment.

Source-Pathway-Receptor

The UK adopts a risk-based and goal-focussed approach to onshore hydrocarbon activities.  It seeks to maintain the risk of an environmentally detrimental incident occurring at an onshore hydrocarbon site at a level that is “as low as reasonably practicable” – operators must endeavour to continually improve their incident risk level.

A  Baseline Desk Study should identify “Source-Pathway-Receptor” pollutant linkages, which can subsequently be monitored to maintain low levels of incident risk, as well as an estimation of the potential consequences of the hazard.  A preliminary risk assessment should be presented in the form of a Conceptual Site Model (“CSM”) to the regulators identified above to ensure that the process of applying for environmental permitting and minerals planning runs as smoothly as possible.

Key Pathways and Receptors

The following are considered to be the key ‘sources’ and ‘pathways’ and, in some instances, ‘receptors’ that may be present at a proposed site for onshore oil and gas:

  • soils and superficial deposits;
  • surface water; groundwater;
  • ground-gases; and air.

Monitoring and Sampling

When monitoring the above ‘pathways’, certain care should be taken with respect to ensuring a representative data sample is obtained.  The number of sites sampled and their location, along with any seasonal or temporal variations, should be seriously considered.

Sampling should be carried out before site activities commence.  A site specific baseline sampling strategy plan should be developed for each of the key pathways which should be developed in line with current best practice guidance, which is available directly from the Environmental Regulators, and based on the Baseline Desk Study, walk-over information and the CSM.

Samples should be stored and transported in line with best practice and submitted to UKAS/MCERTS accredited testing houses (where appropriate) for analysis.  It should be noted that test results typically take 10 days to obtain and therefore this should be taken into consideration when planning the sampling programmes to avoid delays.

Ecology

As well as creating a site specific baseline for the ‘pathways’, a baseline for the flora and fauna is required before an Ecological Impact Assessment is created, demonstrating the likely effects of a proposed activity. Good Practice Guidelines relating to the collection of this baseline data is published by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.  Monitoring of the flora and fauna should have clear indicators of success or failure, set against the baseline.

Planning and Permitting

Planning

Planning permission is a key regulatory requirement which operators must obtain before drilling an onshore hydrocarbon well.  Planning permission is required for all phases of hydrocarbon extraction.  Permission is granted by MPAs, who will determine whether an Environmental Impact Assessment is required to accompany the planning application.

MPAs stipulateadditional requirements for operations involving fracking. In such instances the DECC require an Environmental Risk Assessment, which will include consultation with local communities and other stakeholders and will form a starting point for engagement with the regulators.

Permitting

A number of permitting regimes accompany the planning process.  In most cases the permits will be directly linked to site restoration in accordance with technical guidance and best practice, available from the Environmental Regulator, and potential future site relinquishment guided by the CSM.  An example of an Environmental Permit that may be required is one that enables radioactive substance activities to be carried out.

Conclusion

Securing environmental baseline data should be proactively factored into any onshore hydrocarbon developer’s programme as early as possible.  This will help to ensure that delays in securing approvals are minimised and the developer’s proposed environmental safeguards are sufficiently robust so as to promote confidence amongst the regulators.

More information on onshore oil and gas and best practice guidelines can be found on the UKOOG website (www.ukoog.org.uk).