The government promised to deliver shale in 2015 – but during the year no wells were fracked and no applications for shale gas exploration were approved.
The energy secretary, Amber Rudd, appointed after the Conservative election win, told The Sunday Times in May:
“With a Conservative majority I believe we’ll be able to deliver shale, as we’ve always wanted to do, in a safe but beneficial way.”
But within six weeks the shale revolution she hoped to kick-start appeared to have stalled. Lancashire County Council turned down two applications to frack in Lancashire from Cuadrilla, the only company to have used high volume hydraulic fracturing in the UK.
The government continued to ease the way for onshore drilling companies with changes in the law and the release of new exploration licences. But by the end of the year opposition to fracking had increased to record levels and the issue appeared more divisive than ever.
In this review of the year, we look at the big events of 2015, starting with the decision on Cuadrilla’s plans for Lancashire
Lancashire throws out Fylde fracking applications
A standing ovation, cheers and tears greeted the decision by Lancashire County Council to refuse permission to Cuadrilla for its plan to frack up to four wells at Preston New Road in the Fylde near Blackpool.
Moments later, Pat Davies, of the Preston New Road Residents Group, gave this reaction:
“Absolutely ecstatic. The community can breathe again. This has had a huge impact on peoples’ lives.”
Cuadrilla said it was “surprised and disappointed”. Its chief executive, Francis Egan, said:
“I think the county will regret this decision today.”
Ken Cronin, of the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), said:
“I urge the government to urgently review the process of decision-making”.
The decision came days after the same councillors refused permission for a similar application at Roseacre Wood. They also turned down plans for a seismic monitoring scheme at Preston New Road but approved one for Roseacre Wood.
In January when the applications first came before Lancashire’s planning committee, Cuadrilla asked for a deferral of the decision. Council officers had recommended refusal of both fracking applications. Cuadrilla said it would spend millions to reduce noise, including the installation of 14m high acoustic screens.
Despite this, when the applications came back before councillors six months later, the committee voted unanimously against the Roseacre Wood fracking application. On Preston New Road, it voted against by nine votes to three, with two abstentions. More details
Cuadrilla appealed against the refusals of planning permission and the conditions imposed on the Roseacre Wood seismic monitoring scheme.
Arrangements were getting underway for a public inquiry in Blackpool when the Local Government Secretary, Greg Clark, announced he would make the final decision on all four appeals. The inquiry will still go ahead on 9th February 2016 but the planning inspector will make a recommendation, not a ruling, and Mr Clark will have the final say.
Just before Christmas, Lancashire County Council instructed its chief executive to tell the Prime Minister that it was “inappropriate” for Mr Clark to decide the planning appeals because he was the member of a cabinet with a policy in favour of fracking. It amounted, the council said, to predetermination. More details
In a separate move, the High Court approved an application by Elizabeth Warner, of Roseacre Awareness Group, to seek a judicial review of the planning committee’s approval of Cuadrilla’s plans for seismic monitoring. A hearing in London is scheduled for April 2016.
New areas for fracking and drilling
The government opened up large areas to a potential shale gas industry by handing out new licences for onshore exploration during 2015.
Just days after the end of the Paris climate change conference, it confirmed 93 new licences areas, covering 159 blocks, mainly across northern England and the south west.
Twenty-two companies received licences. INEOS was the most successful company, with 21 licences. It now has exclusive exploration rights across 1 million acres. Other successful companies included Cuadrilla, Egdon, IGas, South Western and Hutton.
The licences were issued as part the 14th onshore round. Most were either side of the Pennines, in Lancashire and Chester in the west and Lincolnshire, the east midlands and Yorkshire in the east. There were also clusters of licences alongside the Severn estuary, straddling the Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire borders and in the Isle of Wight.
Of the 93 licence areas, 63 were issued to target shale gas with potential for fracking. Another 19 were for conventional oil or gas, six for abandoned mine methane vents and five for coal bed methane, which could also be fracked.
Jim Ratcliffe, chairman of INEOS, said:
“The UK government has demonstrated it is determined to move forward with this exciting new industry. This is the start of a Shale gas revolution that will transform manufacturing in the UK.”
But Rose Dickinson, of Friends of the Earth, said:
“Spreading the fracking threat to new areas will only increase opposition to it. Despite having had licenses for years the industry still hasn’t been able to persuade anyone to give fracking the go ahead.”
Frack Free East Yorkshire, where Cuadrilla received licences for shale gas exploration, said:
“East Yorks is in the Northern sacrifice zone. The 14th round is as bad as had been feared”.
Greenpeace said many of the successful companies were either based abroad or funded by companies with finances held offshore. More on the 14th licensing round
Fracking and the Infrastructure Act
The Infrastructure Act got Royal Assent on a quiet Wednesday night in February in contrast to the often passionate opposition during the passage of the fracking sections of the legislation.
The act allowed oil and gas companies to drill under land without the owners’ consent, changing historic trespass laws. It also allowed companies to leave material underground and leave land in a different condition than they found it. It gave the Energy Secretary a statutory responsibility to maximise the economic recovery of onshore oil and gas. Among other conditions, it prohibited fracking from depths of less than 1,000m and defined fracking by the volume of fluid used. More details
During the passage of the bill, the then energy minister, Amber Rudd, promised to ban fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). But secondary legislation, passed by MPs by a small majority in December, permitted fracking at depths of more than 1,200m under National Parks, AONBs and World Heritage Sites.
The government said this secondary legislation applied only to the sub-surface and that new oil and gas exploration licences would include a condition to prevent drilling from the surface of National Parks, AONBs, SSSIs and some other wildlife sites. Campaigners accused the government of breaking its promises and said other conditions on fracking, proposed by Labour during the passage of the Infrastructure Bill, had been watered down.
On fracking under protected areas, the RSPB’s Martin Harper, said:
“Permitting the extraction of gas and oil beneath these sites, exposes nature to needless risk”.
“The onshore oil industry takes the protection of our natural world seriously, and we have a long established track record of developing oil and gas fields successfully and safely in environmentally sensitive areas”.
Fast-track fracking, energy “reset” and CCS cancellation
In August, the government gave ministers the power to take decisions on oil and gas planning applications out of local authority hands. It said ministers would rule on plans where councils did not determine applications within 16 weeks. And it changed the rules to allow the Communities and Local Government Secretary to make the final decision on planning appeals on oil and gas drilling. More details. A group launched a fund-raising campaign to seek a legal challenge to the policy.
Just before Christmas, the government said it planned to bring regulations before parliament in 2016 to end the need for planning permission for boreholes for groundwater and seismic monitoring. More details
Amber Rudd announced what she called “a reset” of energy policy. She said this would focus on gas and nuclear. Subsidies for solar and onshore wind were cut. Campaigners argued that gas was too high-carbon for a long term future. More details A leaked letter suggested the government would struggle to meet its targets for renewable energy by 2020.
As part of the Autumn Statement, the government cancelled a competition worth £1bn to develop commercial carbon capture and storage in the UK, despite a commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto. In December, MPs on the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee gave Mrs Rudd less than a month to answer a series of questions about the cancellation. More details
The chair of the Task Force on Shale Gas, Lord Chris Smith, described this decision as “absurd” and a supporter of shale gas, Professor Paul Younger, said the case for a UK unconventional gas industry was “fatally undermined”.
More fracking plans
In March, Third Energy announced it would be applying for permission to frack the existing KM8 well at Kirby Misperton in Ryedale.
North Yorkshire County Council twice refused to validate the planning application because it was incomplete. A third version was published in July. Since then the council has asked for more information from the company and extended the public consultation. More details
About a thousand people took part in a march against the plans and more than 4,000 have formally objected so far. In October, North Yorkshire County Council announced it was investigating allegations that objections to the scheme had been faked but it would not say how many comments were involved.
The local Conservative MP, Kevin Hollinrake (left), visited fracking areas in Pennsylvania and said he was reassured that fracking could be done safely, without industrialising the countryside. He told DrillOrDrop that well sites should be a mile away from houses. Much of Kirby Misperton is within a mile of KM8. More details
A target date of 9th February 2016 has been set for deciding the application.
Meanwhile, Third Energy received planning permission to drill groundwater monitoring boreholes at Kirby Misperton. And in December, the Environment Agency said it was minded to grant the company permits to frack the well.
Also in December, a local councillor, Paul Andrews. said Third Energy’s operations director, John Dewar, showed him a diagram of ten horizontal boreholes leading from the KM8 well. Third Energy said this was a conceptual sketch. However, in March Mr Dewar (right) told a parliamentary committee his company was looking for around 19 fracking sites in Ryedale with up to 50 wells per site. More details.
Flamingo Land, a tourist resort close to the site, said it supported initiatives that resulted in local employment. But it said:
“Multiple fracking sites within Ryedale would be of a massive concern to Flamingo Land.”
“This would change our visitors’ perception of what a visit to Ryedale represents and would exacerbate existing traffic problems on local roads.”
North Yorkshire County council has defended pension investments in fossil fuel companies and in banks funding oil and gas developments. More details
Moratoriums and presumptions
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee recommended in January a moratorium on fracking in the UK. A vote on a moratorium during the passage of the Infrastructure Bill in January, was heavily defeated after Labour abstained. But less than a year later, in December, Labour’s new energy spokesperson, Lisa Nandy, called for a ban until fracking could be shown to be safe.
The Westminster government announced it would devolve decisions on oil and gas licensing to the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly. Scotland and Wales declared moratoriums on planning permission for fracking. Northern Ireland’s environment minister, Mark Durkan, issued a planning strategy which contained a presumption against fracking.
Other planning news
IGas at Davyhulme and Misson
In October, IGas received permission for two coal bed methane exploration wells next to the Davyhulme water treatment works in Trafford. The company said the development would not include fracking. Only two members of Trafford Council’s development control committee voted against the scheme.
Planners said the application would not have any “unacceptable environmental, ecological or social impacts” and only an “imperceptible and insignificant impact” on nitrogen dioxide levels, already above legal limits.
After the meeting, Jo Burgess, founder of the local Breathe Clean Air Group, which campaigned against the application, said:
“We do not want any more pollution, however small and however insignificant”.
In Nottinghamshire, IGas submitted applications for monitoring boreholes and two exploratory wells at Springs Lane, Misson in Bassetlaw. Bassetlaw District Council voted not to object to the exploration application but opponents have said the scheme is flawed. Nottinghamshire County Council may decide the monitoring application in January 2016. There is no date yet for deciding the exploration application. More detail
Rathlin Energy at West Newton
East Riding of Yorkshire Council extended Rathlin Energy’s permission for its gas exploration site in Holderness, known as West Newton A , for another three years. The company said this would allow it to drill a second well. It said it had made “a very encouraging” gas discovery. More details
The council also granted Rathlin permission for a second well site in the area, to be called West Newton B. More details Both permissions included a no-fracking condition.
Europa Oil and Gas at Bury Hill Wood
After a second public inquiry, lasting eight days, Europa Oil and Gas got permission to drill an exploratory oil well in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A planning inspector ruled in August in favour of the company, despite opposition to the scheme at Bury Hill Wood near Dorking from Surrey County Council, the AONB board, environmental campaigners and residents in the Leith Hill Action Group. A previous public inquiry had ruled against the company. More details
Alkane Energy at Calow
Alkane Energy lost its appeal against the refusal of permission to drill a coal bed methane well at Dark Lane, in Calow. The scheme near Chesterfield in Derbyshire, had been turned down by the County Council in 2014. The planning inspector, Chris Preston, said the development would harm the local landscape and badly affect people living closest to the site. This outweighed the benefits of any gas it produced. More details
UK Methane at Bryntywod
Swansea councillors granted planning permission for coal bed methane exploration for a site that was under water on the day of their committee meeting. Discussion of the UK Methane application at Bryntywod near Llangyfelach lasted less than 25 minutes and involved only three members of the committee.
Opponents of the scheme said the site was unsuitable because it was on the flood plain of the Afon Lan river. During the councillors’ visit there were ducks swimming on the site. After the meeting, they said they would make an official complaint about the decision-making process. More details
Other company news
Rathlin Energy announced it was giving up its exploration licence on the north coast of Northern Ireland. It also abandoned its site at Crawberry Hill in East Yorkshire, blaming the cost of drilling. Rathlin’s parent company, Connaught Oil and Gas Ltd, put up for sale all its assets in Canada. Its agent said Connaught would “deploy the capital raised from the sale” to its UK operations.
A DrillOrDrop investigation revealed that Rathlin’s West Newton A site (pictured above) had multiple breaches of its environmental permits in summer 2014. Three involved the release of gas from the wellhead, specifically prohibited by the Environment Agency. Other problems included monitoring the flare, record keeping and management problems. The company said the breaches coincided with a “settling in period” for new permit requirements introduced in 2013 and there had been “unanticipated on-site operational challenges”.
A separate investigation by the Health and Safety Executive into alleged breaches of other regulations at West Newton continued throughout the year.
Cuadrilla announced in November it was abandoning its exploratory shale gas well at Becconsall (below) on the edge of the Ribble estuary.
Work to plug the well and restore the site is expected to begin in the spring. The company had got planning permission to use the site for pressure monitoring but it said it had not been able to secure equipment by a deadline of the end of May to comply with conditions to protect wintering birds. More details
A DrillOrDrop investigation revealed that pink footed geese feeding on a wildfowl refuge set up by Cuadrilla near the Becconsall site were shot by hunters who had leased the same fields. More details
Research by DrillorDrop also found multiple planning breaches and technical problems at Cuadrilla’s drilling sites. All the exploratory shale gas well had some technical difficulties and none had been restored by the date in the original planning permission. More details
In February, Lancashire County Council refused Cuadrilla permission for seismic testing at another exploration site at Grange Road, Singleton (right). The company appealed and the case is being considered by the Planning Inspectorate by written representation. More details
In March, Cuadrilla Resources signed an agreement with Geothermal Engineering Ltd to explore the feasibility of producing geothermal renewable heat from used oil and gas wells. Lord Browne, the former head of BP, relinquished his chairmanship of Cuadrilla and resigned from the board of Riverstone, one of Cuadrilla’s major funders.
IGas abandoned an appeal in July against Shropshire Council over plans for a coal bed methane exploration well at Dudleston Heath. The council had failed to make a decision on the application by the target date. Shortly before the announcement, the owner of the land refused to renew IGas’s lease on the site. More details In November, IGas declared a £19.3m loss in its half-year financial results. More details
Celtique Energie pulled out of its appeal in March against the refusal of planning permission for its exploratory oil well between Kirdford and Wisborough Green in West Sussex.
It later paid costs incurred in the preparation of the appeal to West Sussex County Council and Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green. More details It also emerged that Celtique was involved in a legal dispute with its partner, Magellan, over a $2m payment to drill an exploratory well near Billingshurst in West Sussex. The case is ongoing. More details
Europa Oil & Gas announced in March it was abandoning its Kiln Lane exploration well at Stallingborough near Immingham after finding no oil. It had previously estimated 2.9m barrels were recoverable.
UK Oil & Gas Ltd described the oil discovery at Horse Hill in Surrey as world class. In April, it said the Weald could produce £1bn barrels of oil but then had to issue two clarifications to the London Stock Exchange.
INEOS held 18 public meetings in central Scotland, where it acquired two exploration licences. Before the announcement of a Scottish moratorium on fracking, the company said it planned to start fracking in 2016. More details
Egdon Resources revealed plans in November for seven oil and gas wells to be drilled in the next year. More details
Barton Moss contamination
Manchester Magistrates Court heard there were dangerous levels of contamination next to IGas’s exploration site at Barton Moss.
A group of more than 40 anti-fracking campaigners who had been arrested during protests outside the site sought permission to use this as a defence against prosecution for aggravated trespass. They said the charges should be dropped because their actions were justified by alleged breaches of environmental regulation by the operator, IGas.
But after several hearings, district judge James Prowse dismissed the application. The trial of the protesters is expected to get underway in 2016. The judge said the construction of the drilling site had probably mobilised contaminants from a past industrial waste dump.
MPs put on legal notice
Jojo Mehta, an anti-fracking campaigner from the Gloucestershire, put UK MPs on legal notice for any harm from fracking. She sent a Notice Before Action letter to all 657 MPs during the passage of the Infrastructure Bill in January. This means they could be sued if people were harmed by the technique. More details
Action against campaigners
IGas and the owner of a proposed drilling site near Chester were granted a possession order against campaigners at the Upton Protection Camp. The campaigners were given until 4th December to leave. They said they would resist eviction and at the time of writing bailiffs had not sought to evict the camp.
In a case at Guildford Magistrates Court, district judge Adrian Turner warned campaigners who locked themselves together outside a drilling site in Surrey that taking part in anti-fracking protests in future could be expensive. He was referring to the government’s introduction of the mandatory court charge imposed on people found guilty in all criminal cases. The government later abandoned the charge after complaints by magistrates.
Rathlin Energy sought to bankrupt the anti-fracking campaigner, Ian Crane, at a hearing in London in December. The company was seeking costs from an eviction case in 2014 at which Mr Crane was a named defendant. The bankruptcy case was adjourned until January 2016.
The impact of fracking on human rights is to be examined at an international human rights tribunal. The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, established after the Vietnam war crimes hearings, accepted fracking for investigation after a submission by three groups of human rights lawyers and academics. Hearings will be held in the UK and US.
Kent Police were shown to have sent plain clothes officers to a debate on fracking organised by Canterbury Christ Church University.
In March, the then chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, Tim Yeo, warned that shale gas would be a vote loser in May’s general election More details About a quarter of the 3,900 election candidates signed a frack free pledge during the campaign.
At a general election hustings in April, Sir Nicholas Soames, the Conservative candidate for Mid Sussex, said fracking in Sussex was silly but it should be tried in Lancashire. More details
After the election, Mrs Rudd’s junior minister, Andrea Leadsom, told an all-party parliamentary group she had asked officials on taking office: “Is climate change real and is fracking safe?” She said she was now convinced the answer to both questions was “yes”. More details
Candidates in Labour’s leadership election were split on fracking. One of the anti-fracking candidates, Jeremy Corbyn, was appointed leader.
The Labour MP, Geraint Davies (Swansea) presented two private members bill on fracking regulation. The first attempt ran out of time when the election was called. The second is due to be discussed in January 2016.
… and revelations
During the summer, the Information Commissioner required the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to publish the full version of a report on the rural impacts of fracking.
A heavily-redacted version of the report, described by ministers as an unfinished internal document, had been released in 2014 following a Freedom of Information request.
Eleven months later, the government released an unredacted version. This included suggestions that fracking could reduce the price of nearby houses by up to 7%, as well as increasing rents, insurance premiums, traffic congestion, noise and air pollution. More details
Also in the summer, an article on the Daily Telegraph website criticising the government on fracking survived less than 24 hours. The paper removed the article which accused ministers of inconsistency by allowing the public a veto on onshore wind but not on fracking. But a sharp-eyed DrillOrDrop reader spotted the article in the print edition and we posted it online. It became one of the most-viewed posts that month. More details
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found high levels of selenium – a toxic element – in rock samples taken from the Bowland shale, which gas companies what to frack. Professor John Parnell, who led the study published in the journal Applied Geochemistry, said samples were some of the most selenium-rich in the British Isles and more concentrated that those found in the US. A number exceeded EU limits. He said: “it is clear that any drilling to extract shale gas in the Bowland Shale area must be carefully managed.” Link to journal article
The industry-funded Task Force on Shale Gas recommended in December in its final report that the UK should go ahead with exploratory shale wells. More details Other reports by the Task Force this year backed shale gas as a bridge to a low carbon future and called for a single regulator for shale gas.
In August, on-going government research on public attitudes to fracking, concluded that the more people knew about the operation the more likely they were to oppose it. More details In November, another government survey revealed record levels of opposition. More details
Research into public attitudes by Nottingham University also identified growing opposition to shale gas extraction, particularly among women. More details In October, Averil Macdonald (pictured left), the new chairman of UKOOG, said women opposed fracking because they didn’t know about it or understand it. More details
A study by human rights lawyers, published in March, concluded that the UK state had violated human rights in the way it responded to anti-fracking protests. Link to study
A report prepared for the pro-shale North West Energy Taskforce, concluded that plans by Cuadrilla to frack in the Fylde region of Lancashire would not affect house prices. Opponents of fracking criticised the quality of the research. Link to report
Christophe McGlade and Paull Ekins, writing in Nature in January, concluded that a third of oil, half of gas and over 80% of coal reserves must remain unused between 2010 and 2050 to avoid exceeding 2 degrees of warming. Link to article
Categories: Daily headlines