Coal bed methane exploitation in north Shropshire now looks unlikely after it emerged that geologists working for IGas came to the same conclusion as an anti-fracking group – that it is not commercially viable.
The detail was revealed in documents presented by IGas and Frack Free Dudleston (FFD) to the Planning Inspectorate in a claim over costs.
FFD was seeking the expenses it incurred in preparing for a planning appeal which was unexpectedly abandoned. The group argued that Dart Energy, which brought the appeal and was later taken over by IGas, had acted unreasonably and should pay the costs.
The Planning Inspectorate announced before Christmas that FFD’s costs claim had failed.
“Although costs were not awarded, the geological statement is very important for this area. People will be relieved to hear that at this stage it looks extremely unlikely that there will be any further applications for coal bed methane extraction in Shropshire.”
Dudleston Heath plans
The case dates back more than a year when Dart Energy applied to explore for coal bed methane (CBM) at Brooklands Farm, Dudleston Heath, near Ellesmere.
In October 2014, Shropshire Council’s planning committee rejected the advice of officers and voted that they were minded to refuse the application. The final decision was adjourned but in January 2015, before it could be confirmed, Dart Energy appealed to the Planning Inspectorate. The company said Shropshire Council had failed to decide the application by the target date.
During the planning process, Frack Free Dudleston argued that the coal seams of the Dudleston area were geologically unsuitable for CBM. The group said:
“We referenced a Government report that was published after the awarding of PEDL 185 that indicated that this area is not good for CBM.”
Dart said the report, produced by Department of Energy and Climate Change and the British Geological Survey in 2011, was not written about the Dudleston area. FFD replied that it was a national study covering the whole UK. It said:
“Shropshire and its coal formations even appeared on one of the maps and the map identified the nearest good area as being many miles away.”
But Dart maintained to the planning committee and its new owner, IGas, that the CBM prospects in the exploration and development licence PEDL 185 were worth exploring.
The appeal process got underway and the Planning Inspectorate set a date for a public inquiry. But on 31st July, IGas, now running Dart, withdrew the appeal.
“No need for exploratory drilling”
In documents seen by DrillOrDrop, IGas’s lawyer, DLA Piper, said the decision to abandon was taken after geologists reviewed CBM prospects in the licence blocks acquired from Dart Energy.
DLA Piper said:
“On completing their review of PDL 185 in July this year  IGas’ experts advised senior management that the CBM target coal seams in PEDL 185 did not meet the company’s criteria for commercial development on a standalone basis.”
“As soon as IGas had been advised by its geologists that the CBM resource was not commercially viable (and ahead of the completion of the overall review) it instructed its subsidiary Dart Energy to withdrawn its appeal as there was no need now for any further exploratory CBM drilling to be carried out in the area covered by PEDL 185.”
DLA Piper added that the commercial viability of a target mineral resource was a relevant planning consideration. The conclusion that the CBM resource was not commercially viable was, the company said, a material change in a relevant planning issue and justified the decision to withdraw the appeal.
FFD, in a response to DLA Piper, said
“The key point is that IGas effectively now agrees with what FFD have been saying all along and are therefore also implicitly concluding that the statements and actions of Dart Energy were inappropriate on this matter. The geological unsuitability of the area is now presented as being the sole factor in deciding that the area has no commercial prospects for CBM, which therefore makes it a very important consideration.”
“It is reasonable to insist that Dart Energy make a proper assessment ahead of placing their initial planning application. Furthermore, when confronted with a well-researched local response during the planning process that they should acknowledge the information rather than seek to dismiss it and then plough on with a planning appeal.”
FFD argued in its costs claim that Dart had been “inappropriate to rush into lodging an appeal” and that the company’s participation in the appeal process had been obstructive. FFD said:
“We presented our case in line with the planning guidance and were arguing that the appellant had been unreasonable on procedural grounds”.
FFD said this included:
- Failing to provide additional information requested by Shropshire Council before going to appeal
- Seeking an appeal knowing that it would not be able to access the site to collect this information
- Trying to downgrade the appeal from a public inquiry to written representations or a hearing based on false premises
- Seeking an appeal knowing that its access agreement to the site was due to expire and that, even it won, it would not be able to use the planning permission.
The Planning Inspectorate confirmed that an example of unreasonably behaviour includes the withdrawal of an appeal, giving rise to a procedural award of costs against an appellant.
But the decision notice, issued on 9th December, concluded:
“An award of costs against the appellants, on grounds of ‘unreasonable’ behaviour resulting in unnecessary or wasted expense, is not justified in the particular circumstances.”
The only challenge to the decision open to FFD is a judicial review. A spokesperson for the group, said:
“We decided not to pursue a judicial review because the potential prize – costs awarded – was not worth the financial and time investment. Situations where the outcome is that drilling is stopped would be different”.