Some opponents of Cuadrilla’s plans to frack in the Fylde have suggested Lancashire County Council’s decision-making process is unfair and biased in favour of the company.
One expert witness said information meetings held last week for councillors had favoured the company. Another said opponents had been undermined and the process could be challenged in a judicial review.
Cuadrilla has applied for permission to frack up to eight wells across two sites, at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood. A report by planning officers has recommended approval of the Preston New Road application but refusal of Roseacre Wood on traffic grounds.
Undermining expert opponents
The officers’ report, which will be considered by the development control committee tomorrow, has been criticised as “inadequate” and “undermining” by an emeritus professor who gave evidence against Cuadrilla’s applications.
David Smythe, emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Glasgow, submitted written evidence to the council on what he saw as the risk of fracking to water pollution in the Fylde. He also gave a 30-minute presentation at a pre-meeting of the committee last week.
The planning officers’ report on Cuadrilla’s applications, running to more than 800 ages, said of Professor Smythe:
“Comments that the geology of Lancashire is not suitable for fracking have been provided by a professor who retired 18 years ago and is now living in France running a B&B. Evidence in the US and UK is to the contrary.“
This statement was “a calculated denigration of an expert witness”, Professor Smythe said last night. He said he took early retirement from the chair of Geophysics at Glasgow 16 years ago and then spent about 10 years consulting for oil companies throughout the world.
Professor Smythe said the officers’ report also denigrated the professional expertise and integrity of two other expert witnesses, Dr Frank Rugman and Mike Hill, who both contributed to a report by the charity, Medact, on fracking and health. Mr Hill stood for parliament at the last election, arguing for greater regulation of the shale gas industry.
The planning officers said the Medact report had “not produced new epidemiological research”. One of its contributors, they said, had led a “high profile campaign in the Fylde related to shale gas” Another, the officers said, had previously expressed “firm views on shale gas and has objected to this application”. The officers continued:
“This has led to questions from some quarters about the [Medact] report’s objectivity. In the light of these uncertainties it is not clear how much weight the County Council should attached to the report”.
In a critique of the planning officers’ report, Professor Smythe questioned why a “high profile campaign” and “firm views” should reduce the weight given to a witness’s evidence. He also asked for the source of the remark “questions from some quarters”.
Professor Smythe said he had made a Freedom of Information Act request for the origin of the planning officers’ statements.
“Even if they are contained in submissions by the applicant or other individuals or organisations supporting the applications, they have no place in an objective and balanced Officer Report”, he said.
Professor Smythe also criticised the officers’ report for being inadequate and misleading. His testimony, which amounted to more than 30,000 words, had, he said, been “reduced to around half a dozen bullet points” and had not been discussed in the detail they requited.
“The Officer Report has not tried to arbitrate between, or decide on, the merits of the technical arguments, and indeed does not have the in-house technical ability to do so”, Professor Smythe said.
It had “reached unjustifiable conclusions which are no more than uncritical repetition of the views of agencies like the EA [Environment Agency]”, he added.
Concerns over democratic process
Another expert witness, the human rights lawyer, Damien Short, was concerned about the democratic process of last week’s pre-meetings.
Lancashire County Council (LCC), unlike some councils, set aside a day for each application last week, at which opponents and supporters were allowed 30 minutes to make presentations. The two sides were not allowed to cross-examine each other and any questions by councillors were left until the end. The meetings were not open to the public but speakers were allowed to nominate a number of observers.
Dr Short gave a presentation to the Roseacre Wood pre-meeting on Friday. He had also given evidence to another pre-meeting when the fracking applications were last heard by LCC in January 2015. On that occasion the decision was deferred. He criticised the order in which the speakers appeared, with the opponents first, followed by the company.
“The company always has the final say”, he said. “The last word that the councillors hear is that of the company”.
“They [the company] can come up with statements which cannot be challenged by the opponents. Compare that to a court case: that would never happen.”
Dr Short has also written to Lancashire County Council complaining about the planning officers’ report.
In the letter, also published on the website extremenergy.org, he said: “I wish to raise serious concerns over the evaluation of likely health impacts of the above applications in the reports of the Planning Officer – in particular ‘PNR/RW Appendix 17 Public Health.’”
“The planning officers implicitly criticises those reports that raise serious concerns over the likely health impacts while uncritically accepting the more favourable Public Health England (PHE) report”, he said. This “raises concerns over impartial evidence based decision making”.
Dr Short also criticises the planners for not mentioning a recent report by the New York State Department of Health and for not clearly identifying a full range of sources of risk.
“The tolerability of risk from exploratory drilling is codependent, not independent of the tolerability of risk from production operations. If we apply the precautionary approach then arguably the demonstrable impacts of unconventional oil and gas production are unacceptable due to the lack of evidence to prove their safety.”
Editing note: The final section of this post was removed at 21.02 on 22/6/15. This is because it concerned the contents of a private email that was not intended to be made public and was released by mistake to DrillOrDrop.com
Update 23/6/15 to include Damien Short’s letter