UK on-shore shale gas and land rights: can a so-called ‘legal block’ stop the UK shale play in its tracks?

Last year was a year in which the UK environmental lobby began to mobilise against the UK unconventional gas industry. The autumn saw the establishment of a protest camp at Barton Moss in Greater Manchester in response to exploratory drilling for coal bed methane by Igas Energy and the camp continues. Some people in local communities have opposed exploratory drilling out of fears it will eventually lead to hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. Civil disobedience and direct action protest activity have taken place.

However, it is not only direct action and civil disobedience that has made the headlines. In October 2013, Greenpeace launched a campaign called the ‘legal block’ to exploit what was reported at the time as a ‘legal loophole’. Under English law, a person’s ownership of land on the surface also extends to the land beneath. Even though coal, gas and oil in the ground is owned by the Coal Authority and the Crown respectively, under English law, the permission of the landowner is required to drill through or under their land in order to get to it and exploit it.

Greenpeace has encouraged people to actively proclaim their opposition to drilling and create a patchwork quilt of non-consenting landowners to frustrate plans to carry out drilling. The exploitation of shale gas reserves by hydraulic fracturing typically requires the drilling of very long and deep (up to a mile or more) horizontal wells that spray out from the central drilling pad. On 3 February, it was reported that five landowners, including Viscount Cowdray, had written to Ed Davey, the energy secretary, to say that they do not give permission for any drilling beneath their land, which surrounds a proposed exploration site near Fernhurst, in West Sussex. Could this sort of activity frustrate the UK shale play? …

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