At the end of July 2014, the UK government published application criteria and terms for the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round. This will be key to the aspirations of would-be shale gas developers in the UK. Onshore licences are available in areas including the Bowland Shale in the north of England (where the British Geological Society estimates a potential gas-in-place resource of 1,329 trillion cubic feet (tcf) alone) and the Midland Valley in Scotland.

Applications for new licences under the 14th round can be made until 2:00 p.m. 28 October 2014. This is the first round of onshore licensing in the UK for six years, and the resultant final licence awards are expected to be announced in the next 12 to 18 months. The level of interest expressed in these new licences will be a good barometer of how the industry regards the steps which the UK government has been taking to promote the growth of shale gas in the UK.

Additionally, new model clauses for onshore licences have been issued in the Petroleum Licensing (Exploration and Production) (Landward Areas) Regulations 2014, which came into force on 17 July 2014. These model clauses are intended to promote unconventional oil and gas exploration and production and include several new provisions which are aimed at affording greater flexibility to licensees - these provisions relate to "drill or drop" elections, the term of the licence (with revised focus on extensions and retention areas) and splitting horizontal layers on surrenders.

The new model clauses recognise the different attributes of shale gas exploration and production programmes and that shale gas deposits typically have a much wider geographic footprint when compared to conventional oil and gas resources. Whilst greater flexibility is given to licensees under the new model clauses, there are also tighter controls over proposed project activities and timescales, with the intention of accelerating the outturns of planned exploration and production plans. 

The new model clauses are also intended to promote the findings of the recent Wood Review relating to maximising economic recovery (see Notes From The Field - Issue 3).

There is also a new requirement for a detailed Environmental Awareness Statement (“EAS”) to be submitted with licence applications. The EAS is intended to demonstrate a licence applicant’s understanding of the environmental sensitivities relevant to the area proposed to be licensed. This requirement is intended to promote a successful interface with ecological sensitivities.

The UK government has taken a number of other steps to promote shale gas development in the UK, including introducing localised fiscal incentives to support the development of shale gas exploration pads. However, significant other issues still remain to be addressed by would-be shale gas developers, including obtaining planning permission to drill and hydraulically fracture test wells and managing often vociferous local public opposition to shale gas development. We have previously considered how UK onshore shale gas developments might be structured (see Notes From The Field - Issues 3 and 6).

Many challenges still lie ahead. Oil & Gas UK, the trade association that represents the interests of the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry, has given a cautious welcome to these new developments:

“There are a number of synergies between the offshore oil and gas industry and the onshore sector. Many of the techniques and some of the services required to recover land based unconventional shale gas already exist in the offshore oil and gas sector and should be readily transferable. There is scope for making these learnings and expertise from the offshore sector quickly transferable to operators developing onshore oil and gas resources. The new Oil and Gas Authority, which will govern both onshore and offshore industries, should ensure consistency of approach wherever applicable.”