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How does a marine aggregate producer get a licence?

How do aggregate companies go about defining a viable source of material and what controls the extraction process that then allows them to supply the construction industry with a quality product? These questions were recently answered at a Crown Estate workshop for aggregate professionals.

Recent estimates indicate that, of all the concrete currently being used in construction projects across Greater London, 50% uses sand and gravel sourced from marine aggregate reserves in UK waters.

In the same way oil and gas companies use geologists to investigate the seabed and identify fossil fuel reserves for exploitation, aggregate companies employ marine geologists to prospect for marine sand and gravel within areas of the UK territorial waters.

In identifying a viable reserve, workability is one of the key considerations. It is of little use to find a high-quality aggregate source in the middle of an offshore windfarm. Equally, reserves in too deep or too shallow water might be outside of the workable water depth of commercial aggregate dredging vessels.

Knowing where to look is also a key skill, requiring an underlying knowledge of the geological history of the deposits: where they came from, how they were deposited, and when. This knowledge can then be applied to geological history of the UK since the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago.

This type of knowledge also helps when considering the potential quality of the mineral reserve. Is it likely to be clean sand or gravel, or might it be mixed with high concentrations of fine material? Is it only likely to be a thin veneer of gravel over underlying bedrock, or could the reserve be thicker, making it more commercially viable? All these considerations can help with planning prospecting surveys, the data from which will then enable the geologists to confirm and quantify the aggregate resource.

But once a viable resource has been identified, UK law dictates that a number of licences are then required before commercial dredging can be permitted.

Companies and individuals are unable to buy land at sea (unlike on land), so an agreement on mineral rights to the area of seabed in question is required. The Crown Estates owns over 99% of the seabed within UK territorial waters so, in most cases, negotiations on a Production Agreement are required, and royalties need to be agreed.

Operations at sea are governed by UK law, in particular the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (with amendments), which requires that a Marine Licence be sought for a range of activities, including ‘the depositing or removal of any substance or object, either in the sea, on or under the seabed.’  

Aggregate extraction falls into this category, so a Marine Licence Application will need to be made to the relevant regulator (the Marine Management Organisation in England and Natural Resources Wales, in Wales).

Such applications require supporting documents, including and Environmental Impact Assessment, which considers the proposed extraction activities, and assesses the potential effects on receptors such as physical processes, benthic ecology, water quality, fisheries and navigation. This allows the regulator, through consultation with relevant stakeholders, to determine whether or not to allow the aggregate extraction proposed.

Finally, a positive consent decision will include conditions on the licence, requiring aggregate companies to continue to monitor their licence areas, focussing their dredging activity into Active Dredge Zones, and ensure that a capping layer of sediment is maintained for recolonization once the aggregate resource is no longer viable.

Prepared by Adam Fulford, Physical Processes specialist

This overview was presented at a Crown Estate workshop for aggregate professionals entitled 'Resource Area Application and Management', in respect of marine sources of sand and gravel.

Learn more about ABPmer's consents and licensing work.