Report: meeting between Frack Off Our Forest and South Western Energy

Before I start the report… here’s an advert:

I ent too proud to beg… if you think the work I do is worth paying a monthly subscription so I can eat and pay bills (and you can afford a fiver per month), please feel free to join the subscribers who’ve so far given me an income of £200 as a Forest of Dean Advocate.

Now ON WITH THE REPORT…

On Tuesday (May 17, 2016) we told Gerwyn Williams, the owner/ director of South Western Energy that NO WAY will we let him drill in the Forest of Dean/ Gloucestershire… here’s how our face-to-face meeting concluded

Gail (FOOF): If you continue with this in the Forest, we will be a bottomless money pit, I promise you. You won’t do it here. We’ll just spend all of your money. And then someone else’ll finish your house.

Gerwyn (laughs)

Owen (FOOF): Really, our ideal would be that…

Gail: You just need to pull out…

Owen: … you pull out, you save police resources, you save our energy, you save your energy…

Gail: And your money…

Gail: You are wasting your time in the Forest on all sorts of levels. We will burn all your contingency money, I promise you. And not just us – 85% of the community… and if you look over the history of the Forest and particularly the last 10 years even. You cannot win there. We’ll beat you.

Gail: Save your money and withdraw from the Forest.

Gerwyn: You know, to the best of our ability, we’ll do it safely…

Gail: No you won’t, because you’re not doing it! You’re not doing it in the Forest of Dean.

(you’ll have to read on to get the reference to his house, or read the last section of our investigation into the man, the enigma, the one-man South Wales powerhouse that is Gerwyn… Prince of Shales)

It was some time ago that we had an offer from Gloucestershire Police to broker a meeting with South Western Energy, the tinpot firm that wants to explore for gas in the Forest of Dean.

On Tuesday morning that meeting finally happened at police county HQ near Cheltenham. And hats off to Gloucestershire Constabulary for a job well done. Half a dozen police officers attended, asked questions (of South Western Energy, to confirm they would not be doing any work before getting planning permission) and also laid on a splendid buffet.

Admittedly there was some trepidation among us regarding the police’s offer to set up a meeting.

Some activists from elsewhere in the country urged us not to do it, arguing that the police motive was to gather intelligence.We were assured this wasn’t the case by the police liaison officer who set the meeting up, who has also attended most of our demos. (Plus public activists like us in Gloucestershire are well known by local police and we have made no secret that we are prepared to use direct action and civil disobedience to prevent gas exploration here in the Forest of Dean.)  The police officer said it would be good for both sides to sit in the same room, and hear what their plans were.

Our experience of local police so far at anti-fracking demos has been positive. I think police probably want to keep it that way, and not have their hand forced by Government and higher-ups. (Although they stated their role as an impartial referee at the start of the meeting, I wonder if many of them are secretly on our side? We have had chats to several coppers recently and they’ve told us though they can’t say it publicly they are dead against fracking)

Having spent many, many hours researching South Western Energy and its owner/director Gerwyn Williams, I sort of knew what to expect. I’d heard from Welsh anti-frackers that he was a personable, pleasant enough human being, despite his undying love for methane. He’d arrived with his front-of-house geologist Oliver Taylor, who we learned knew the Forest as he was born and bred in Stroud. Gerwyn reckoned he’d wanted to explore for gas in the Forest for more than 20 years, after discovering the coalfield with his mining company Ryan International, who’d tried and failed to open a mine.

With me was fellow FOOF frontliner Gail, plus three respected experts also from the Forest – Dr Nigel Salter, chartered engineer and business leader, Dr Paul Vare, environmental education and community dialogue expert, plus Paul Morgan, mining surveyor, who started in Waterloo pit, Lydbrook, way back in 1948.

Naturally, we recorded the entire meeting. I can’t work out how to put it on this page, but if you want the recording we have it, and I spent hours and hours transcribing almost all of it…

I was going to publish the whole transcript but it goes on forever, so here’s the highlights…

The meeting began…

Police Inspector: We thought it would be useful to get both sides together and give the company the opportunity to explain what they want to do, so you understand first hand what it is and to give you the opportunity to ask questions… just so everyone understands where we are. We are impartial, so we’re not taking sides, we’re here basically just to referee and to make sure it all stays nice and friendly.

 The first thing we discovered was that although South Western Energy was “offered” the licences in December 2015, and has “accepted the offer”, they and every other successful(?) applicant offered licences on that date has yet to receive them.

This means, they say, they can’t do much work until they’ve had the PEDLs (Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences) signed, sealed and delivered… needless to say, we plan to push hard (and hope other campaigns elsewhere will) to try and persuade the Government NOT to grant licences.

We wonder if the Government is awaiting the outcome of the first actual fracking application in the UK since 2011, being heard this Friday and next Monday in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, and the recommendations of the appeal inspector in Lancashire, due early June. Could this be a make or break situation?

The next thing we heard from Gerwyn and Oliver is that they want to explore for both coalbed methane and CONVENTIONAL (as opposed to unconventional shale) gas or oil.

Oliver: We’re looking for the coal seams right at the bottom of the basin which haven’t been worked and then looking to see if there’s any potential traps within the Devonian beneath that [all Devonian layers]… We think there’s coal seams below the ones that have been worked already…

We have seen how Gerwyn works though in South Wales – he tells the public he doesn’t want to frack, but then slips in exploration for shale gas. We spent quite a bit of time trying to get him to concede that shale gas/ future fracking was an object in the Forest of Dean, but while he would not deny it outright, he kept repeating he was interested in conventional gas in the Devonian old red sandstone/ mudstone layers… by way of explanation, here’s a geological cross-section map of the Dean:

forest_section_lrg

As you can see, there’s an awful lot of old red sandstones (this cross-section is simplified as there are several types within the red, as there are five different bands of carboniferous limestone and several different layers of coal measures).

I tried very hard to get them to admit that as they were planning a stratigraphic rock-core testing hole looking from 600m to 1200m they’d also be looking at the limestone, which is where our groundwater comes from, and for shale gas. They claimed they would have to case-off any holes going through the limestone layers, and didn’t think these layers would be thick enough anyway to produce gas.

But this comment from Gerwyn near the start probably explains enough:

We’re not interested in shale gas at the moment. We’re interested in exploring only for coalbed methane and for conventional gas. So we’ll let the big boys, the Cuadrillas of this world, look into fracking – in three, four or five years it might be something they look at.

Later he said: “We’re not going to sit here for shale gas because quite honestly we’ve got 44 trillion cubic feet of shale gas proven in South Wales…”

So their theory is that the coalfield goes deeper than the 630 metres claimed by 19th-century geologist Sopwith. Oliver reckoned one source claims the coal measures go down to 800m, but was unable to recall the source when I asked him.

He believes there are coal seams deeper than any which have been previously explored, which don’t outcrop… presumably beneath the known Trenchard seams which are thickest in the south of the Forest.

But, as everyone I’ve ever spoken to in the Forest with a knowledge of mining acknowledges, there is NO gas or “firedamp” in the Forest of Dean coalfield. The British Geological Survey states “the seam gas content has not been measured but circumstantial historical evidence (naked lamp working, almost total absence of firedamp in the mines) suggests it is very low”.

Paul Morgan was an invaluable witness, who brought photographic evidence of people smoking down the Forest mines, film shoots starring models for 1960s Daz commercials actually in the pits and his own first-hand knowledge about air quality tests (this had been his job when he first started in the mines) and the colossal amount of water within the old mine workings.

Paul said:

When I started work Arthur and Edwards [colliery] in Lydbrook [aka Waterloo] in 1948 – just 18 months after nationalisation – we all used carbide naked lights as did every pit in the Forest. Part of my job when I started there was taking air samples weekly and we never ever – and this was the same in every colliery – and we never ever had one report of gas in that time. I’ve got a photograph of the Cannop engineer going down the pit, doing his daily shaft inspection, with a cigarette in his mouth. No gas. That was a deep mine. You had Waterloo, Cannop, Princess Royal, Norchard – which was a drift – and Eastern United, which was a drift. And all the time, right to the closure, I would say six out of 10 men smoked in the pit. There was never any fear. I worked in the mines in South Wales. When you went down the pits you were liable to be searched. That never ever happened in the Forest. I’ve seen pumping stations where they had candles stuck in jars all the way round.

As Paul pulled out more photographs, including one showing the late, great freeminer Eric Morris at the coalface, which he’d taken using potentially explosive flash powder, geologist Oliver Taylor appeared confounded. Here’s how the conversation developed…

Gerwyn: We need to prove what you’re saying to ourselves. We accept what you’re saying, but from an engineering stand point we have to prove that. Then if that is the case, then you’re right, there is no coalbed methane.

Oliver: We know the quality of the coal and the way it was formed would have had gas in it of a certain volume, and we can take the coal away for analysis and see the gas that would have been in that coal. If that gas has now gone…

Owen: We know it has, it’s well known.

Oliver: We need to think about why that gas has gone… is it the permeability of the coal, is it the water that runs through the coal? And that will help me in other coal basins…

Paul M: If you take the Coleford High Delf as the main seam in the Forest of Dean, and all the collieries worked the Coleford High Delf. It comes from down south, Lydney, through, and in the north-east of the coalfield it’s rising about 1 in 2. You saw the picture of the chap working on the coalface there. You’ll see the shale above which allows a passage of water through it… Anywhere you stand in the coalfield the seams of coal are rising from you so obviously if there was any gas there it would have…

Oliver: But that’s not my experience elsewhere looking at a lot of coalfields around the UK, even very close to the outcrop there is gas…

Paul M: We’re unique…

We brought up another Forest anomaly, the immense amount of water contained in the coalfield, which after umming and ahhing Gerwyn conceded that they would need to pump out to get the non-existent gas flowing out of another chamber.

Paul M: Have you got to get rid of all the water that’s currently in the deep mines just to carry out your work?

Gerwyn: No, we’ll drill round it.

Oliver: It depends on the permeability of the coal and the distance from the coal workings.

Gerwyn: Stay away from it, that’s what we’ll do… That’s the last thing we want to do, quite honestly.

Paul M: Quite frankly the water in the lower series, it runs off at Old Norchard at about 67ft above sea level. Just up the road five miles, Parkend is probably the deepest part of the coalfield and that’s down to probably 1500ft below sea level. So we’ve got a massive amount of water coming out, 5,000 gallons is estimated to be running out from Old Norchard per minute, and that is a lot of water. And even under the Northern Quarter, which is going ahead, there is probably something like 20 atmospheres of water pressure. Now can you operate with that type of pressure? That is within a kilometre of the outcrop. If you go down to Parkend you’ve probably got 40 or 50 atmospheres of pressure – that’s a lot of pressure. I’m just wondering what you’re going to disturb when you start drilling through all this. Virtually you can’t take any more water out – 5,000 gallons per minute is draining out from there. I don’t think you could ever drain the coalfield out to be frank about it and all the water – I can’t see any other way but go through Lydney town, through the Lyd which is tidal from the Severn. I think you’ve got terrible problems there. I cannot see how you can operate with such a terrific water pressure within the coalfield.

Oliver: I’ve got to be honest, I haven’t done my water pressure balance on this project at all yet

Gail: So you don’t know?

Oliver: But it will be done before we begin…

Gerwyn: We haven’t had the licences yet. The licence allows us to do this work really. We’re not going to do the work without the licence.

To clarify the amount of water draining to the south of the coalfield (5000 gallons per minute) Paul clarified a week’s worth would fill the whole of Wembley Stadium to a height of 100 feet.

All our research into testing for coalbed methane has shown pumping out wastewater (containing radioactive and toxic elements) has to be done to relieve the pressure on the coal seams, allowing the gas (non-existent in the Dean’s case) to flow out… it turns out that whether there’s any gas found or not, another of Gerwyn’s companies will be in charge of not only storing the water, but treating it on site…

Owen: So obviously you’re talking about CBM…

Gerwyn: Looking for it, even if it isn’t there… but we’ve got a duty to do it…

Owen: But the process of looking… don’t you do two chambers – one chamber has all the wastewater coming out, and the other chamber is where the gas should flow out…

Gerwyn: That is one method of doing it. What we would do is different from that. If we have to pump out some water, yes… if we get coalbed methane…

Dr Paul Vare: Where does the water go?

Gerwyn: The water would be cleaned up on site and discharged in the local waterway. It would have to be good enough… or it’s used in a local business. If local businesses need water, then that’s the sites we’ll look for. But we can sell the water effectively.

Owen: Is that your own water firm – UK Water Supplies Ltd that you’re using?

Gerwyn: Yes we will be.

Gerwyn later confided to me that there was probably more money in water treatment than gas – presumably, if he managed to flog it to local business. He also conceded that the infrastructure providers would benefit whether gas was found or not.

Here’s what else we learned:

  1. Oliver Taylor plans to spend the next 12 months finalising a geological model to ascertain where to drill – he confirmed that he’d be looking at every square kilometre of the licencing areas, shown below (shaded in green, the red square is the Government-proscribed ‘potential impact area’. He reckons there is no need for any seismic surveys – he can use existing data from 2D seismic surveys done in the Usk valley and in Herefordshire, plus plot data from boreholes across the area (published by the British Geological Survey), as well as areas where there are surface restrictions (including the Wye Valley AONB) – although they can drill under them.

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2. While it seems the Forest of Dean coalfield (which is most of the central Forest area) and the Public Forest Estate is the main target, if it looks as if the ‘conventional’ gas or oil from the Devonian layers can be accessed elsewhere (these rocks lie under the whole licencing zones at great thicknesses of more than a mile) they’ll try drilling there as well.

3. When asked how many wells would be drilled, the answer was “not many”. This would contradict the experience in Australia and America, where thousands upon thousands of well sites litter vast landscapes, and also a recent revelation from Ineos which wants to frack North Yorkshire – it envisages 30 well sites (each the size of two football pitches) containing up to 396 wells in total just within ONE of the above four 10 x 10km grid squares.

4. They will be looking at “markets” to pipe gas to directly – they mentioned hospitals and the Lucozade/Ribena factory at Coleford.

5. Their drilling rigs are much smaller than Cuadrilla’s – they produced photos of a CBM production site at Llangeinor, South Wales, with rigs no higher than 12 metres.

6. Oliver explained the process of getting permission to drill:

Oliver: Initially we need the PEDL licence from the Crown… the hydrocarbons are retained by the Queen. Through the Petroleum Act 1998 anything we do is classed as development, so we need planning permission… We need access to the coal from the Coal Authority and the Deputy Gaveller in the Forest. Once we’ve done that, and we’ve got those in place, the well design and how we set out the well and the casing goes to an independent well examiner. He looks at that and checks that through and sends that to the Health and Safety Executive. They then have a chance to look at it. Then we go back to the Oil and Gas Authority and ask for a well consent and an operation number, and once we have those we can start drilling.

Owen: We’ve heard of independent well examiners in coalbed methane production sites not really being independent from the gas firm…

Oliver: We used a chap called Chris Bone on the last borehole, and Max Schneider (?) on the more recent ones. We don’t have anyone in-house who does that.

Paul Vare: Have you looked into the economic impact as well, positive and negative, does that come under planning?

Oliver: I don’t know.

Nigel Salter: There’s a test case on that at the moment… So the well examiner, that’s someone you contract, you pay them – they work for you, essentially?

Oliver: Yes.

Nigel: How do they examine the well?

Oliver: They don’t see it once it’s in the ground, but all the process has to be agreed beforehand – the Environment Agency gives a permit, and the HSE they come to site…

I plan to explain in a future post, based on previous evidence, how and why the regulatory agencies may not be very stringent in their regulating…

7. As many do, Gerwyn made the mistake of thinking the Forestry Commission OWNS our Forest:

Gerwyn: Why we drill forests in South Wales is because the Forestry Commission own them…

Owen: That’s wrong – the Forestry Commission manage forests, we the people own them. They manage it, we own it. That will be a major factor stopping you in the Forest of Dean, the fact that people feel very passionate, that the Forest belongs to them. And we’ve been fighting that battle for the last five years, successfully – in fact for 400 years people have been fighting it…

Nigel: There’s a pattern in the Forest of Dean of people coming in from outside, exploiting the Forest, making a load of money and then buggering off after making a mess – that’s ingrained in the psyche of people in the Forest.

8. Gerwyn’s been wanting to drill in the Forest of Dean for 20 years…

Gerwyn: We’re looking at the Devonian and I’m looking at the Devonian in the Forest… I wouldn’t like to say how many years on paper, a long, long time and I think there are prospects there. If you look at the structure (shown in the cross-section) it lends itself to conventional gas production – we think – that’s why we’ve applied for the licence. We think it’s worth drilling a hole there…

…As I said, I’ve been looking at it for years. I’ve had mines and I’ve sold them. Ryan International, we were the biggest mining company in the country, and we looked at the Forest of Dean for mining then, and I’m going back 20 years. At that time I always had gas and oil at the back of my mind and looking at the structures, I thought there was something then. It’s not as if it’s come overnight. I didn’t think… It’s cost us a hell of a lot of money to put the application together and I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t think there was something there.

9. Where’s the money coming from?

Owen: Just to ask you quick, how are you going to raise the money?

Gail: We’ve seen your [half finished] house as well…

Gerwyn: It’ll come, on the back of the right project.

Gail: So you’ll get outside funding?

Owen: So are you going to use Infinity Energy as your investment vehicle?

Gerwyn: Possibly. We’ll have to wait and see.

Gail: Do you think you’ll ever finish your house?

Gerwyn: We’ve got people working on it, I can tell you that.

Owen: No I was just wondering, cos we just can’t see where the money’s coming from. I mean, where is it coming from?

Gerwyn: Well the money will come from… so far it’s all come from me.

As the meeting concluded, we served Gerwyn with a “notice before action”… It states:

Your attention is drawn to the fully referenced documents compiled

by the professional groups Concerned Health Professionals of New

York in the US and Medact in the UK, of which the introduction and

executive summaries are enclosed. The documents detail the self

evident risks and harms of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and related

unconventional oil and gas extraction practices, eg Coal Bed

Methane extraction. The CHPNY report contributed directly to the

decision of New York State to ban the practice.

The full documents can be viewed online at

http://concernedhealthny.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/PSR-

CHPNY-Compendium- 3.0.pdf and at http://www.medact.org/wp-

content/uploads/2015/04/medact_fracking-report_WEB4.pdf

The present notice and enclosed information, delivered by hand or by

recorded delivery, is legally deemed served. In the event of any court

proceedings relating to risks and harms arising from your company’s

activities in unconventional oil or gas exploration, the enclosed

information will therefore constitute prior knowledge.

Here’s photographic evidence

photo 1

And here’s how the conversation went:

Owen: This is to state you have a duty of care… does Gerwyn have to sign it? There’s some information from the Concerned Health Professionals of New York cataloguing all…

Gerwyn: Look Owen, we’ve seen all this before, we’ve read it, we’re not signing anything. This is America. We don’t live in America.

Owen: No, but this Medact report is British.

Gerwyn: It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. I’ll take them with me, thank you, but I’m not signing anything at all.

Nigel: You don’t have to sign it. The other thing we were going to give you was the presentation we gave to Lord Bourne… It’s more about the social aspects in the Forest.

Owen: This is pertinent to the Forest itself, issues that are there…

Gerwyn: We’ll go through all of that [document]… We’re quite happy to go through all of this and meet you again.

We’ll certainly meet with South Western Energy again – and indeed invite them to a public meeting so EVERYONE can meet them. But really we hope they’ll have a think about all the issues here, not to mention taking on board the large majority of people in our social surveys that have declared themselves against living in or close to a gas field.

It remains to be seen how bloody-minded both South Western Energy and the UK Government is about continuing to try and do this.

But one thing’s for certain, they won’t succeed. We The People will make sure of that!

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