The mysterious case of Frack Free Witney


Posted on 7th July 2015 by

Has David Cameron instructed DECC to omit his Witney constituency from the areas currently under offer in the 14th round of onshore licensing? Below is a map of his constituency shown in blue, with adjacent constituencies outlined in black. The red boundaries with the hatched areas mark the 14th round offer acreage on offer. The acreage is made up of 10 km x 10 km blocks, based on the Ordnance Survey grid. The ‘island’ square to the east of Witney comprises nine such blocks. Existing onshore oil and gas exploration wells are shown by the red dots. DECC will be announcing the licence awards within the next couple of months.

witney 14th round offer

As you probably know, DECC’s 14th onshore round of licensing is designed to open up for exploration all the areas which have even the slightest potential for shale gas or oil. Basically this means the whole of the UK, except for the mountainous and upland areas where there is crystalline rock at the surface, and no prospect whatsoever for shale fracking. So the Highlands and Southern Uplands of Scotland are omitted, together with the Lake District, most of Wales, and Cornwall. The regional map below shows the geology of Wales and southern England in a variety of colours, with the 14th round offer areas and existing wells on top. Witney is in solid blue.witney 14th round offer regional with geology 2

Inexplicably, DECC has omitted from the offer a big swathe of eastern England, extending from David Cameron’s Witney constituency eastwards to the coast of East Anglia. I say ‘inexplicably’, because there is nothing about the geology of this region that particularly warrants its exclusion. DECC normally takes a pragmatic approach to licensing, and one of the guides to licensing new areas is to take into account whether there has been past interest by the oil industry. Evidence for this is best shown by the drilling history. For example, around Witney there are a score or more of old oil exploration wells within a distance of 10-20 km. Within the east of England ‘exclusion zone’ there are two islands of blocks on offer, and although the historical well density is fairly low there has clearly been past oil industry interest in the region. The Witney constituency itself is densely covered by seismic profiles – another indicator of exploration interest – and the area was licensed for oil exploration in awards made in 1971 and 1981. In addition, one of the seven UK regional seismic profiles compiled on behalf of DECC by the UK Onshore Geophysical Library runs right through Witney town.

The surface geology is shown in colour on the map above, and although this picture is not necessarily a reliable guide to the geology at depths of more than a kilometre or so, we do know that the upper layers of rocks in the south-east are of Mesozoic and Tertiary age, and that these contain several important shale and clay layers, possibly suitable for fracking. The Witney constituency is no exception.

An FOI enquiry to DECC about the reason for the east of England exclusion zone elicited the following response:

“… the areas included for offer in the 14th Onshore Round were primarily determined by the underlying geology indicating to DECC that hydrocarbons could be present in those regions.

However, where an active interest has been expressed by third parties that they would like to explore additional areas for hydrocarbon prospectivity, such areas may be included in the acreage on offer. This includes the 30km x 30km region encompassing Brackley, Buckingham and Bicester.”

Although this explanation might possibly account for the inclusion of the more westerly of the two island blocks within the exclusion zone, it fails to explain adequately why the Witney area (a 30 km by 40 km set of twelve blocks) has been excluded. If the island of blocks referred to by DECC and included in the offer really is the subject of “active interest” then a more rational 14th round offer map, based on exploration potential, together with expressions of interest, would have been to place the western boundary of the exclusion zone to the east of this block, in the Bletchley-Aylesbury area.

So non-geological reasons must have played a part in the specific exclusion of Witney from the 14th round offer. DECC should be required to explain its choice of blocks in this area. Was there an expression of disinterest, and if so, from whom? The constituents of north Yorkshire and north Nottinghamshire, currently under threat of planning applications to frack, must be wishing that they had such an influential MP as David Cameron.

I thank Christopher Tedd and Sandie Moore for drawing my attention to the Witney mystery.

Response to The mysterious case of Frack Free Witney

  1. Bee Warren

    Camoron is obviously … [deleted by moderator] (well we’ve always known that anyway) but does he really imagine he will be protected from the effects of fracking just by making a reserve of his own patch? Not just nasty but astonishingly thick. Er… David, go back to junior school. The average 10 year old knows that water flows and evaporates and falls as acid rain, that air moves [and can carry radioactive dust] for thousands of miles and that methane accelerated climate change will kill the whole planet – including Witney!

  2. john

    the whole country is going to sink i can see it now every one fighting to get to the mountings safe from the water as England sinks owe miya

  3. Pingback: July 2015 fracking timeline | Drill or Drop?

  4. Pingback: No North-South divide on fracking – Lords urge | DRILL OR DROP?

  5. BackingFracking

    Hi, this is really quite interesting – we’re pretty sure there’s a logical and non-political reason for Witney not being offered for exploration, but we’re just a group of UK residents that support shale gas.

    You say:

    “The surface geology is shown in colour on the map above, and although this picture is not necessarily a reliable guide to the geology at depths of more than a kilometre or so, we do know that the upper layers of rocks in the south-east are of Mesozoic and Tertiary age, and that these contain several important shale and clay layers, possibly suitable for fracking. The Witney constituency is no exception.”

    At what sort of depths would these shales and clays be encountered? We note that you’ve previously said that the area around Balcombe isn’t suitable for fracking because of fault lines, could that also be the case at Witney?

    • Professor David Smythe Post author

      If you believe that there is a “logical and non-political reason” for Witney being excluded, then please provide it.

      I am not going to get drawn into a discussion about whether Cameron’s Whitney constituency actually has any prospective shales or clays. I have more than enough to do, geologically speaking, studying in detail the areas that actually are at risk from fracking to waste my time on the areas which are not under threat. In brief answer to your questions, yes, there is faulting mapped at the surface, as in Sussex; the Jurassic shales and clays in this area are rather shallow (only a few hundred meters deep, or less), so the more likely prospects are perhaps in the deeper Upper Carboniferous Coal Measures.

      The point I made in my blog is that the geology of that area is not fundamentally different from the blocks offered for licensing to the east or the west. So if DECC thinks these latter areas might have potential, then why was Witney left out of the offer? If you wish to look at the geology in more detail I can recommend:

      (1) The BGS Lithoframe viewer. You have to download and install both the software and the database. It takes an hour or two to do this and get up to speed with the software. There are several hundred ready-made geological cross-sections to view, and you can make your own as well. To get you started in the Witney area: zoom in on the map subwindow with the help of the OS topo map, then replace that by the 625K solid geology, add all the sections on the map, then pick UK_Reg13_Section_224 to view in the section window. This runs SW to NE, from Malmesbury, through Witney, passing north of Oxford to Bicester.

      (2) View the paper geology maps with their accompanying cross-sections online on the BGS website. The 1:50,000 BGS geological map sheets correspond roughly to the licence offer areas as follows:
      West of the Witney constituency – 217 Moreton in the Marsh, 235 Cirencester (included in the offer, except for their eastern edges).
      Witney constituency – 218 Chipping Norton, 236 Witney (excluded).
      East of Witney constituency – 219 Buckingham (included), 237 Thame (north half included).

      The other point I perhaps did not make clear enough in the blog is that the 14th round licence offer ‘acreage’ is generalised, and does not normally go into such fine detail as to omit a small area like Witney. DECC says that it included the ‘island’ of nine blocks just east of Witney because it had a request to do so. If that is the case, and if the request was from a serious exploration company, then why has this area not subsequently been awarded?

      In conclusion, non-exploration, non-geological reasons do seem to have been at play in the exclusion of Witney. Maybe there are Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or similar non-geological criteria, around Witney and Chipping Norton that justified exclusion, but if that were the case we would have heard of them by now.

  6. Pingback: Gas and Oil Onshore Fracking in Britain. But Not in David Cameron’s Witney Constituency |

  7. diane Brockley

    David Camoron wants fracking. …..but not in his back yard. He does not see the irreparable damage to life that it will cause because all he can see is £ signs. I am totally against fracking and cannot understand anyone who thinks this is a good idea

  8. Kevin Walsh

    There is a coalfield beneath Witney with thick seams of coal. Perhaps they have some future plan to strip away the surface rocks and turn the area into a copy of the dodgier bits of East Germany.

  9. Pingback: Why the UK Government response on fracking is wrong – anotherdorksblog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *