Fracking study examines Northumberland National Park's potential for controversial activity

Durham University research has looked into the level of fracking threat to the country's national parks - and found North Yorkshire could be targeted

Coquet Valley hay meadows in Northumberland National Park
Coquet Valley hay meadows in Northumberland National Park

The North East’s top landscape area is unlikely to be suitable for controversial fracking operations, a study predicts.

Northumberland National Park is rated as being a doubtful prospect in the quest for viable oil and gas reserves.

After reviewing existing geological data, scientists at Durham University’s Department of Earth Sciences highlighted the potential suitability of each of the country’s 15 national parks for fracking activity, according to their rock type.

The review is published on Thursday as a policy briefing document by the Durham Energy Institute.

The briefing categorises the suitable geology for fracking in the UK’s national parks as:

* Red (fracking possible). North York Moors, Peak District, South Downs, and Yorkshire Dales - with rocks of possible interest to companies looking to frack for shale gas, shale oil, or coalbed methane.

* Amber (fracking unlikely). Brecon Beacons, Exmoor, New Forest, Northumberland – were shown to have shales or coals present, but other aspects of the geology make fracking unlikely.

* Green (no fracking). Broads, Cairngorms, Dartmoor, Lake District, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs, Pembrokeshire Coast, and Snowdonia – had geology which rules out fracking, according to the brief.

Dr Liam Herringshaw
Dr Liam Herringshaw

Study author Dr Liam Herringshaw of Durham University’s Department of Earth Sciences said that the geology of the 400 square miles of Northumberland National Park was a mixture of sedimentary rocks such as sandstone, limestone and shales - the types which can contain oil and gas – and igneous rocks created by volcanic activity and at-depth molten magma, which are of no interest to fracking prospectors.

The igneous rock includes the Whin Sill, a major feature of the Northumbrian landscape.

“There are quite a lot of sedimentary rocks in the park but as far as we know they do not have a significant hydrocarbon (oil and gas) potential to merit exploration,” said Dr Herringshaw.

Another problem was that the movements of molten igneous rock had altered other rock deposits.

“They have basically been cooked. Shales have been compressed and deformed, and many have been over-heated by the igneous activity. They have low hydrocarbon potential,” said Dr Herringshaw.

“In a simplistic way, companies exploring for shale gas or shale oil try to find hydrocarbon-rich shales hundreds to thousands of metres below the surface, occurring over large areas, where the structure is not too complex and there are no igneous rocks. The Northumberland National Park is therefore unlikely to be of major interest.“I am hesitant to rule it out completely, though, as the underground always has the potential to surprise us, which is why continued research into the geology of northern England is so important.”

The study was prompted by confusion around Government policy in relation to fracking in national parks.

In January, in response to public concerns, the Government announced there would be “an outright ban on fracking in national parks”, only to amend this in February to say that “in the case of areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks, given their size and dispersion, it might not be practical to guarantee that fracking will not take place under them”.

The Infrastructure Act 2015 was enacted in February, restricting unconventional oil and gas development in national parks.

However, Dr Herringshaw said the Act’s implications were presently unclear as protected areas are still to be defined, though the Government is required by law to clarify protected areas in legislation by July this year.

Additionally, recent planning guidance by the Department of Communities and Local Government states that applications for oil and gas exploration in national parks should be refused “other than in exceptional circumstances and where it is in the public interest”.

Last week in its “green manifesto” Labour vowed that shale gas exploration will not take place in national parks and protected areas if it wins the General Election.

Dr Herringshaw added: “We hope that this review of existing information about the geology of the UK’s national parks will help provide all sides involved in the fracking debate with some clarity about the potential for fracking in these areas, which currently appears to be lacking.”

Tony Gates, Northumberland National Park chief executive, said: “Governments of all political colours have recognised the importance of these special places when they designated them national parks.

“Whilst the statement from Durham University provides interesting reading and opinion in respect of the geology of our national parks and their suitability for fracking, the national planning policy framework makes it clear that all national parks in England deserve the highest levels protection regardless of their geology.

“Not having seen the detailed report it is not possible to comment further.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer