Councillors in East Yorkshire voted unanimously this afternoon to give Rathlin Energy another three years to operate an exploratory gas site in Holderness. But they added a condition preventing hydraulic fracturing.
The extension of time at the West Newton A site, north of Hull, will allow Rathlin to drill and test a second well. But opponents of Rathlin’s operation said after the meeting the no-frack clause would reduce the value of the company’s assets in East Yorkshire should it decide to sell.
The decision on the application was reached in less than 40 minutes by East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s planning committee. Members heard two presentations lasting under 10 minutes in total, one from an opponent of the scheme and one from a consultant for the company.
Rathlin welcomed the decision and said it was “an important step” in its programme to determine whether gas discovered in the area had commercial potential.
After the vote, objectors to the application called out to the committee: “Shame on you”, “You are a shower” and “You don’t listen”.
One person asked: “Would you want that in your back yard?” Another said: “You believe what Rathlin say”.
The committee’s chair, Cllr Phyllis Pollard, told them: “You have made your point. I would like you to go.”
The meeting at County Hall in Beverley heard there had been a total of 87 objections, of which 54 had been received since a report by planning officers was published a week ago. They included concerns about noise, traffic, a pollution incident at the site last September, risks to environment, wildlife and water and questions about trust in the company. (More detail on objections and officers’ recommendations).
Councillors were told that one objection, received this morning, alleged Rathlin misled the public about a mini fall-off or mini-frack test at the existing well at West Newton A. The company had permission for the test but has said consistently it decided not to do it.
The objection referred to a video, said to have been filmed on 3rd August 2014, which had been released this morning. The meeting heard that the video appeared to show the company’s field manager saying that a mini frack was underway.
This afternoon, Rathlin said any suggestion that it carried out the test at West Newton or at Crawberry Hill, which is being decommissioned, was completely inaccurate. The company questioned the authenticity of the video.
During the meeting, Jon Mager, for objectors to the application, said the company had an environmental permit that allowed it to do a mini-frack at West Newton A. Mr Mager said:
“The latest video revelations from activists highlights the possibility that a mini-fall off test there [at West Newton A] in August 2014 led to the major problems with well pressure which required dramatic intervention and eventually led to the well closure.”
“What is to stop members inserting a no-fracking condition in the planning permission?”
Turning to look at Rathlin’s chairman, David Montagu-Smith, sitting behind him, Mr Mager said:
“I’m sure David Montagu-Smith would welcome that”.
Mr Montagu-Smith looked straight ahead.
Cllr Philip Davidson, the only Lib Dem councillor on the Conservative-led committee, said he had been inclined to support the planners’ recommendation to approve the application until he received an email about the video.
Cllr David Rudd, who had proposed the committee should grant consent, said he would be very happy to add a no-frack condition.
Cllr Bryan Pearson said the condition was not necessary because the application was for conventional gas exploration. But the 12 members of the committee voted in favour of adding the clause to the planning permission.
Elizabeth Walker, Rathlin’s planning consultant, told the committee results from the existing well at West Newton A, along with seismic surveys of the area, showed a potentially-significant discovery of gas. The company wanted to drill two additional wells at West Newton B, a second site in the area, before deciding whether to drill a second well at West Newton A.
“This will help determine whether West Newton A could be the basis of commercial development, which would be the subject of another application”.
Cllr Pollard said the application was not for hydraulic fracturing. It was for an extension to the time period for test drilling. She said: “We have to deal with the specifics of the application. We are not able to crystal ball”.
But after the meeting, Mr Mager accused the committee of applying planning rules inconsistently. He said a decision in June to turn down an application for additional wind turbines at Withernwick had used arguments that the committee had refused to consider for Rathlin’s exploratory gas drilling. He said:
“Today’s decision proves there is an unacceptable, inappropriate relationship between East Riding of Yorkshire and Rathlin.”
“They [members of the planning committee] need to start listening more carefully to objectors.”
Mr Mager had said there were many gaps and mistakes in the planning officers’ report.
“Most of Hull and a third of the East Riding are at risk from global warming. With this decision, East Riding says this does not matter. This was a valid objection that was not covered in the officers’ report.”
He also suggested that Connaught, Rathlin’s parent company, was “talking up the value of their assets here before a sale”.
“Members of the planning committee have seen this many times before and know that to sell a property with planning permission is more lucrative.
“It makes sense, knowing the obvious financial difficulties experienced by Connaught-Rathlin at the moment”
He added: “The no-fracking clause will make it less desirable.”
Richard Howarth, of Frack Free East Yorkshire, said the no-fracking condition was an improvement on the original planning permission. But he added that it also needed to apply to the mini-frack test.
“The councillors have no understanding of the significance of the wording, which only applies to high volume hydraulic fracturing.”
We invited Rathlin Energy to comment on issues raised this afternoon during and after the committee meeting. The company issued this statement:
“We are pleased that the planning committee was minded (unanimously) to approve our planning application for an extension at West Newton A.
“The well we drilled there discovered natural gas. We believe this to be firm evidence of a potentially significant gas field in the Permian Kirkham Abbey formation.
“The approval today is an important step in our programme of operations to determine whether the gas discovery has commercial potential. We will continue to carry out our works in accordance with our permits.”
The company said the no-fracking clause did not affect its plans now or in the future. A no-fracking condition applied to Crawberry Hill, which the company had recommended. The company said:
“Rathlin has consistently stated (not claimed) that it has no interest in high volume, hydraulic fracturing within the Bowland Shale and has no plans to sell its current licence. So this is not considered an issue at all.”