UK government considering changes to trespass rules to make it easier for shale gas developers, reports say

Out-Law News | 03 Apr 2014 | 7:47 am | 1 min. read

The UK government is considering changes to trespass laws that would allow developers to access oil and gas located under private land without necessarily obtaining the landowner's permission, a newspaper has reported.

The Financial Times said that if government decided to press ahead with the changes, the relevant legislation would be included within an Infrastructure Bill to be announced as part of this year's legislative programme during the Queen's Speech.

The FT said that any change would be a boost to the UK's nascent shale gas industry, as it would prevent environmental groups from using the law of trespass to block exploration.

Shale gas is natural gas trapped within shale formations at significant depths below ground. It has become an increasingly important source of natural gas in the US, particularly over the past decade, where a combination of drilling and 'fracking' involves pumping water at high pressure into shale rock to create narrow fractures through which trapped gas can flow out and be captured.

Under the 1934 Petroleum (Production) Act, onshore oil and gas on UK soil belongs to the Crown rather than to the landowner, as is the case in the US. Exploration licences do not include any rights of access, and so developers must also obtain planning permissions and permission from the landowner before they can carry out any exploration work.

Property law expert Melissa Thompson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that any proposals making it easier for shale gas developers to acquire the necessary land rights would be "very welcome".

"The fragmented regulation process which exists at present means that access rights need to be dealt with and obtained quite separately to any licence permitting the exploration of shale gas under the 1998 Petroleum Act and other consents," she said. "In most cases, land rights have to be acquired through negotiation directly between landowners and shale gas developers. The current state of affairs is unsatisfactory and reform of the law of trespass, insofar as it applies to land and access rights in the context of shale gas development could significantly assist in this regard," she said.