The Environment Agency (EA) has issued a regulatory position statement which will significantly extend environmental permitting requirements for existing onshore oil and gas facilities. These will match the requirements that have been imposed since October 2013 on operators of new onshore oil and gas (including shale gas) facilities. Some existing operators may not hold all the requisite permits, but the EA has said that they will be able to continue operations without the risk of enforcement action being taken, provided that the necessary applications are made without undue delay, and provided that high pressure, high volume hydraulic fracturing is not being carried out. The EA will be writing to all existing operators, but operators should not to wait to be contacted and should clarify permitting requirements and make any necessary applications as soon as they can.

Prior to October 2013, onshore oil and gas operators were typically granted environmental permits covering crude oil unloading, handling, storage and/or treatment activities. The EA then issued guidance clarifying the application of environmental laws and permitting requirements to onshore oil and gas activities. This was largely done to clarify the requirements for extracting shale gas by hydraulic fracturing, but the guidance applied to all oil and gas operations. The EA required new onshore operators to have permits for any of the following regulated activities carried out:

  • the management of extractive waste (e.g. the presence of used well stimulation fluids);
  • flaring of waste gas using a flare with a capacity of more than 10 tonnes per day;
  • a water discharge activity (e.g. the discharge of contaminated run-off to a watercourse);
  • a groundwater activity (e.g. the use of well stimulation fluids that might pollute groundwater);
  • a radioactive substances activity (e.g. the handling of well stimulation fluids that pick up naturally occurring radioactive materials).

The EA now requires existing onshore operators carrying out any of these regulated activities to make an application for a new environmental permit or a variation to an existing permit. It plans to write to all existing onshore operators that hold environmental permits or petroleum exploration and development licences (PEDL) requesting information on activities being carried out. The EA will then advise on whether any permitting applications are required. This review process will commence soon and is due to run to June 2016. Whilst operators that were permitted after October 2013 should, in theory, hold all requisite permits, they may wish to check the position statement against their current permits.

The EA has said that it will not "normally take" any regulatory action for not having the necessary permits provided that (a) the necessary applications are made without undue delay; (b) the activities are operated in such a way that they pose no risk of pollution to the environment or harm to human health; (c) all existing permit conditions are being complied with; and (d) high pressure, high volume hydraulic fracturing is not being carried out. Whilst this offers existing operators some comfort, the caveats are significant. Existing onshore operators are advised not to wait for the EA to raise written queries but to confirm their permitting requirements and make any necessary applications as soon as practical.

The full regulatory position statement is available here.