IGas cleared the first hurdle to fracking in north Nottinghamshire this morning with the approval of its application for groundwater monitoring at a site earmarked for shale gas extraction.
Opponents of the application said the decision by Nottinghamshire’s planning and licensing committee had been expected. They promised a big build up in their challenge to the company’s next application for two exploratory shale gas wells, due to be decided later this year.
Jayne Watson, of Misson Parish Council, said:
“We know where we stand now. We know what we have to do”.
The committee, meeting at County Hall, followed the recommendation of officials to approve the scheme for up to 12 boreholes on the site of a Cold War missile base at Misson in Bassetlaw. They ignored party lines and voted by nine to two in favour. The councillors who voted against were two of the three women on the committee.
After the meeting, opponents said they were pleased that the committee had added additional conditions on lighting and noise monitoring. IGas will also have to avoid drilling the boreholes during the breeding bird season. This means it will have to start imminently to meet the deadline of April 1st, or delay drilling until September.
But Misson villagers, who had voted in a poll by 82% against IGas’s plans, said they felt the planning process had worked against them. Council officers told the committee it could not take into account a wide range of concerns raised by local people including:
- Risks of fracking
- Financial problems of IGas
- Inadequate depth of the proposed boreholes
- Questions over the Environment Agency’s ability to regulate activities on the site
- IGas’s choice of site
- Impact of the scheme on wildlife
Opponents argued the application was premature because it was dependent on the approval of the application for exploratory wells.
But the council’s principal planning officer, Jonathan Smith, said members could consider only the application in front of them. Any future applications for drilling or fracking would be considered on their merits and this permission would not predetermine their outcome. He said the Environment Agency and Natural England had not objected to the plans, and the committee had to assume these organisations would do their jobs properly.
The Infrastructure Act requires companies to monitor groundwater for methane gas for 12 months before fracking. But this could be the last application for groundwater monitoring boreholes linked to oil and gas exploration to be decided by councillors. The government is proposing to allow these boreholes to be drilled without the need for planning permission. It has promised to bring in secondary legislation this year.
Choice of site
The local MP, John Mann (Labour, Bassetlaw), told the committee the application was inappropriate because it would industrialise the countryside around Misson. There was only one way in and out of the village, he said, and residents were already affected by a mushroom factory. If the application were approved they would be “trapped between the two sites”, he said.
“I don’t think it is reasonable to be trapped in this way”.
Cllr Watson, of Misson Parish Council, said IGas had a licence area of 282km from which to choose a site. It had picked a location that was just 125m from the Misson Carr Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), in a flood zone and above a drinking water aquifer. She said:
“This is the worst possible site IGas could have chosen. It is one of the most sensitive areas. We believe the selection was based on logistics and security.”
She said the application contravened planning policy because IGas had not proved the site was the most appropriate available. But principal planner, Jonathan Smith, said this rule applied to oil and gas exploration and this application did not count as exploration – just groundwater monitoring.
Depth of boreholes
The committee heard that IGas proposed to drill up to 12 boreholes in four locations on the Springs Road site. Four of the boreholes would be up to 40m deep, reaching the Nottingham Castle Sandstone formation. Depending on what those boreholes revealed, others may drilled at shallower depths.
Misson Parish Council, along with Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency, suggested the proposed boreholes may not be deep enough or in the right locations to produce all the information needed. Emeritus Professor David Smyth, who had advised Misson Parish Council, recommended boreholes 1,500m deep and at locations as far as 1.5km from the site. Yorkshire Water suggested boreholes should be at least 150m deep.
Mr Smith, for Nottinghamshire County Council, said the Environment Agency and IGas were still discussing the depth of the boreholes. If deeper boreholes were required then IGas might need to submit another planning application. But this was not a reason to reject the current plans.
Financial security of IGas
David Larder, the chair of Bassetlaw Against Fracking, said IGas had lost £19.3m in the six months to September 2015 and has been rated by Company Watch in a warning area for financial health since 2012. He said people were concerned about what would happen if anything went wrong at the site. He told the committee:
“IGas is in deep financial trouble. If they go bust it will fall on Nottinghamshire taxpayers to pick up the tab. You are responsible for looking after our taxpayers.”
Lib Dem councillor Stan Heptinstall, asked whether the committee could take account of what he described as the “parlous financial state of the applicant”.
The committee’s legal officer said a company’s financial viability was not a material consideration in deciding a planning application. She said the permission went with the site, not the applicant. Any enforcement action could be taken against both IGas and the owner of the site, L Jackson. She added that to get an Environment Agency permit IGas had to demonstrate it was a “fit and proper person”.
Impact on wildlife
Helen Mitchem, of Frack Free Nottinghamshire, said the site was in an environmentally-sensitive area, close to three SSSIs and six local wildlife sites. Their valuable biodiversity depended on water quality, she said, but the application’s environmental report did not deal with ecology.
She said £298,000 had been spent on raising the water levels of Misson Carr SSSI. This was one of the last remaining fenland sites in Nottinghamshire and a threatened habitat nationally.
Ms Mitchem added that there had been no assessment of the application of its impact on breeding birds, bats or water voles. To applause from the public gallery she said this was an example of “corner-cutting” and “incompetence” by IGas and the application should be rejected.
Spencer Warren, a planning consultant for IGas, said the maximum noise likely to be experienced by people living nearest the site would be 64 dba when the boreholes were drilled. He said guidelines allowed noise levels up to 70 dba.
He said there had been no objections raised by the EA or statutory consultees and the application had support from within the county council.
Cllrs Jim Creaver and Sue Saddington asked Mr Warren what would be the normal, as opposed to maximum, noise level. He said he did not have that detail to hand.
Several councillors suggested that monitoring should be carried out by an independent company, not IGas. Tom Hargreaves, a consultant hydrologist for IGas said the monitoring would be carried out by a contractor and analysed an independent certified laboratory. The results would be sent to the Environment Agency.
Asked whether the results would be made public, he said: “Yes, the information submitted to the EA is a public document”.
Asked whether the EA checked that the agreed method was being carried out, Mr Hargreaves said: “Yes, the EA does come round to check and to audit the process”.
Planning officers had recommended 21 conditions covering issues such as duration of the application, maximum depth of boreholes, the height of the rig, lorry movements and route, noise levels, working hours and measures intended to protect wildlife.
Councillors agreed to two additional conditions. These required:
- Lighting to be directed down on to the site and away from properties and wildlife habitats.
- Noise to be monitored during drilling. If it exceeded allowed levels then screening would be required.
Greg Hewitt, of Frack Free Nottingham, welcomed the additional conditions but added:
“We wil make sure that these conditions are adhered to because we have seen examples where this has not happened. We all need to be vigilant.”