Southeast England is underlain by two sedimentary basins in which oil and gas have previously been discovered;
the western Wessex Basin
and the eastern Weald Basin.
The target of shale gas exploration in the Wessex Basin (which underlies Hampshire) are the bituminous shales of the Kimmeridge Clay formation of Upper Jurassic age, in places 500-600m thick, where they have been buried to a depth where temperature and pressure were sufficient to turn the organic carbon into gas.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) issues Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDL). A map of onshore areas currently under licence is available here. Detailed licence information is available here. New PEDLs are issued every few years, with public consultation on the next (14th) licensing round expected in late 2013.
An operator who already holds a PEDL must obtain planning permission before drilling can start. The government has recently (September 2013) proposed a series of measures to simplify and streamline the arrangements for making and determining planning applications in England. Hampshire County Council (HCC) is the Minerals Planning Authority for Hampshire in partnership with Southampton City Council, Portsmouth City Council, New Forest National Park and the South Downs National Park. In a letter from HCC dated 5 June 2013, WinACC was told that ‘At present we have no such [shale gas] applications and I assure you that proper consideration would be given to any application, and appropriate consultation with statutory consultees and other interested parties would be undertaken ahead of any planning decision. Any application would be considered on a case by case basis, within the prevailing overall national and local planning policy framework.’ The statutory consultees referred to would include the Environment Agency who state that ‘Any operator who wishes to explore for shale gas using deep drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing will be regulated under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010.’ Other consultees (for Hampshire) would include Natural England and the Health Protection Agency. Operators must also notify and engage with DECC on the plans for the borehole and with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ensure health and safety at the workplace. DECC provides operators with the final consent for hydraulic fracturing, once all other permits and permissions are in place.