LONDON -- While most Western European governments are opposed to developing oil and gas from shale rock through hydraulic fracturing, the British government continues to plug away at the obstacles inhibiting that nation's fledgling shale industry.
The government Friday proposed giving companies the right to drill laterally under land without seeking the consent of each landowner as long as the wells were at least 300 meters (about 985 feet) deep. It also endorsed industry proposals that operators make a voluntary payment of 20,000 pounds ($34,000) to local communities for each horizontal well that they drill.
At the same time, the government published an estimate by the British Geological Survey, a research organization, that there could be 4.4 billion barrels of oil embedded in shale rock in an area south of London called the Weald Basin.
To date, it has not been proven that there is commercially exploitable shale gas or oil in Britain, and the industry hunt has been mostly focused on gas. The shale oil estimate is the first major study in Britain to indicate that there could be substantial deposits of the type of oil that has greatly increased U.S. production in recent years.
The government appears to be trying to head off challenges by environmental groups and landowners opposed to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Shale gas wells typically bore down a mile or more and then proceed laterally for that distance or more. Environmental groups have aimed to halt drilling by encouraging owners of the land above wells to try to block them through legal action.
Environmental groups criticized the new proposals. "Stripping away people's property rights while trying to kick off a Klondike-style shale oil rush" in the area around London "is a highly toxic policy mix," Greenpeace said in a statement.
British Energy Minister Michael Fallon said the proposals offered "a fair deal for communities in return for underground access at depths so deep they will have no negative impact on landowners."
The government said that if it did not act, "the commercial exploitation of shale gas and oil in Great Britain is unlikely to develop on a significant scale." It also said these changes would bring treatment of the shale industry in line with other underground activities, including deep coal mining.
Under the government's plan, companies would still need to pay landowners for direct access to their land and to obtain all necessary permits for drilling and fracking. The proposals now come under a 12-week consultation period. The government will then decide how to proceed.
While no shale gas or oil has been produced in Britain, the industry is inching forward. A small company called IGas Energy recently drilled an exploratory well in northern England, encountered gas and is now evaluating samples to see if the deposits can be commercially exploited, according to its chief executive, Andrew Austin. This year, the French oil giant Total said it would invest in a shale gas venture in Britain.
The operators are attracted by Britain's geological potential as well as relatively welcoming posture. A British Geological Survey study last year of central Britain estimated there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas in the area, but it is unknown how much could be recovered.