At the end of the first week of the public inquiry into Cuadrilla’s Lancashire fracking plans the key battlegrounds are becoming clear.
Supporters and opponents held rallies outside the hearing at Blackpool Football Club on the opening day on Tuesday. Inside, barristers and experts witnesses spent four days debating issues including climate change, waste disposal, health, noise, landscape, jobs, traffic and planning policy.
Cuadrilla is asking the inspector, Wendy McKay, to support its schemes to drill and frack up to four wells each at Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road. They were turned down by Lancashire County Council in June last year.
The company is also appealing against the refusal of consent for a monitoring scheme at Preston New Road and the conditions attached to a similar scheme at Roseacre Wood. The company’s case is backed at the inquiry by the North and West Lancashire Chamber of Commerce.
On the other side, Lancashire County Council is defending the decisions made by its planning committee. Also lined up against Cuadrilla are: Friends of the Earth; Preston New Road Action Group; Roseacre Awareness Group; Treales, Roseacre and Wharles Parish Council and Newton-with-Clifton Parish Council.
The inquiry is expected to last until 11th March and hear evidence from more than 20 expert witnesses, along with members of the public. The inspector will make a recommendation and the decisions will be made by Greg Clark, the Communities and Local Government Secretary.
In this review we look at where the two sides stand on the battleground issues.
Will fracking harm local landscapes?
One of the reasons Lancashire County Council turned down the Preston New Road fracking plan was that the drilling equipment, screens, flare stacks and other equipment would urbanise the rural landscape. As a result, it breached local planning policies.
Cuadrilla argued that the landscapes around Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood have no national or local designations and are not distinctive or rare. It said few people would experience significant visual intrusion because the proposed work would be screened by undulating land and hedgerows. The company’s expert argued that a 53m high drilling rig would have no greater impact on the landscape than a 35m one.
The company accepted there would be some significant adverse impacts on the landscape and visual amenity but said they would be temporary, intermittent and short-lived and affect only a small number of people.
It told the inquiry there were already urbanising influences on the landscape. At Preston New Road, there were pylons, the M55 motorway, the A583 and the view of an office block on the edge of Blackpool. The landscape at Roseacre Wood was already affected by masts at RAF Inskip.
The Preston New Road Action Group argued that Cuadrilla had failed to respect the positive features of landscape. Cuadrilla’s plans conflicted with the development plan because it was industrial development in open countryside. Policy EP11 of the Fylde Local Plan required new development to be in keeping with distinct character types of Lancashire. The Lancashire Landscape Strategy warned against tall vertical structures introducing what it called negative features.
Opponents of the plans also criticised Cuadrilla’s landscape assessment. They said it was not objective or developed using best practice.
Will the drilling sites be too noisy?
Noise was the other reason for refusing the Preston New Road fracking plans. Lancashire County Council said noise would be unacceptable and could not be adequately controlled by sound-reduction measures.
During the inquiry this week opponents argued that the fracking schemes were contrary to the Lancashire Minerals and Waste local plan and the Fylde Local Plan because noise would have an adverse impact on local people.
Lancashire County Council’s barrister said national policy stated that people should expect a good standard of amenity. The National Planning Policy Framework stated that noise was unavoidable for minerals developments in the short term. But the council questioned whether 14 months of drilling proposed at each site could be defined as short term.
Cuadrilla argued that the exploration sites would be temporary, lasting in total for six years each. It said the predicted noise levels of 42 decibels at night and 55 during the day met government guidance. It added that only three properties would be affected by the Preston New Road site and only one by Roseacre Wood. Opponents of the scheme dispute this and argue that 42 decibels at night is too high to safeguard the sleep of people living nearby. They also called for lower daytime noise limits at weekend, something Cuadrilla said wasn’t necessary.
The two sides also disagreed over which British Standard on noise (BS5228 or BS41220) was appropriate. Cuadrilla acknowledged that a background noise survey by Preston New Road Action Group was more detailed than its survey or one carried out by Lancashire County Council. But the company did not accept that noise levels down to 21 decibels at night at Preston New Road were typical. It argued that the night-time background noise from traffic on Preston New Road was likely to be higher than noise from the drilling site.
What is an unreasonable burden on Cuadrilla?
The inquiry heard that the National Planning Policy Framework requires noise levels to be reduced to as low as possible, without imposing an unreasonable burden on developers.
Dr Hiller said the company had proposed last year to surround the rig with acoustic screens at a cost of £1.46m for each site. This would reduce noise by 3db at nearby homes. Dr Hiller said the difference would be just about perceptible and would make no difference to reducing disturbed sleep. He said costs should be considered in deciding whether this was an unreasonable burden. Cuadrilla is no longer offering to spend the money.
Will drilling make people ill?
Cuadrilla’s noise expert, Dr David Hiller, said the proposed night time noise level of 42db would protect people from sleep disturbance. But the other side quoted the World Health Organisation guidelines which recommended an upper limit of 4O decibels. And even this was above what people living near the sites were used to.
Dr Hiller said there was no evidence that exposure to noise lasting no more than a small number of years would give rise to health effects. But Ashley Bowes, for PNRAG said only a few nights of reduced sleep could lead to health problems.
Cuadrilla quoted Public Health England which concluded the health risks of fracking would be low if it were properly run and regulated.
Both sides agreed that people had already suffered from anxiety about the prospect of fracking. Cuadrilla’s barrister, Nathalie Lieven said people were anxious about the railways when they first arrived.
Will the developments create or cost jobs?
The North and West Lancashire Chamber of Commerce said Lancashire County Council had given insufficient weight to the financial benefits of the applications. It argued that a shale gas industry in the county would create many, well-paid jobs. It said the industry was poised to invest in what should be a strategic industry – but this depended on the sites going ahead.
Despite this, the inquiry heard that the two exploration sites, if approved, would create a total of 22 jobs. Local people would be employed mostly in cleaning and security and, possibly, some decommissioning work on the wells. Fracking and drilling staff would come from outside the area.
Cuadrilla also acknowledged there could be some loss of jobs in tourism. But if this happened it said the losses would be short-term because when the industry became established tourism would recover as people got used to the industry.
Robin Green, for Roseacre residents, said there was no sign that people were learning to love fracking and suggested ironically to the inquiry:
“Come to Lancashire, home of fracking. That will have the tourists flocking.”
Do the fracking plans comply with government policy ….
Cuadrilla’s barrister, Nathalie Lieven, argued that a ministerial statement, made by Amber Rudd, the Energy Secretary, in September 2015, confirmed government support for the extraction of shale gas. “There is a national need for the applications before you”, she said.
Roseacre Awareness Group argued the government had exaggerated the benefits of shale gas extraction and underplayed the costs. It added:
“It is not a policy to explore for shale in unsuitable areas.”
…. or contribute to climate change?
Cuadrilla argued that Amber Rudd’s statement showed that shale gas extraction would contribute to reductions in the UK’s impact of climate change.
Mark Smith, Cuadrilla’s planning expert, said the statement did away with the need to assess the greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas projects because government policy was now that they would contribute to achieving climate change targets. He said the government regarded gas as the cleanest fossil fuel and it would help the UK move to low carbon energy.
Friends of the Earth argued that the statement did not displace the statutory duties of the Climate Change Act or the Paris climate agreement, which were material considerations for the inquiry. The statement had not been consulted on or debated in parliament and this reduced the weight that should be given to it.
Friends of the Earth said it would call evidence that the shale gas proposals at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood were the last sort of developments the UK should be undertaking. FoE’s barrister, Estelle Dehon, argued that government support for shale gas did not mean these particular developments in these specific locations concerning this type of extraction must be permitted.
She said policies in the Lancashire Minerals and Waste Core Strategy and development plan required decision-makers to consider climate change.
Is local planning policy out of date?
Mark Smith, for Cuadrilla, said the Lancashire Waste and Minerals Plan was out of date because it didn’t mention shale gas. He said it was silent on meeting a national need. Therefore, he said, Paragraph 14 of the National Planning Policy Framework applied. This said that permission should be granted if a development plan were absent, silent or out of date, unless impacts outweighed benefits.
Alan Evans disagreed that the policies were absent. He said they had been judged to be sound and, for some policies, it didn’t matter that they took no account of shale gas because they were dealing with other issues.
How many rigs at one time?
Cuadrilla proposes to use a 53m drilling rig and a 36m coiled tubing rig. The company’s planning witness said they would not be erected on site at the same time. But the landscape expert said the smaller rig would be needed for flow testing. The indicative programme showed that flow testing well 2 would coincide with drilling well 3.
Will the extra traffic cause problems?
Lancashire County Council refused the Roseacre Wood application on traffic grounds. It said the increase in heavy lorries in particular would have an unacceptable impact on rural roads and existing users.
At the inquiry, local people argued that the proposed fracking site would increase traffic and reduce highway safety. They said local roads were unsuitable and the impact of extra traffic would be severe and adverse. As a result, they said, the proposal conflicted with local planning policy.
Cuadrilla said there would be problems on only one stretch of road. The maximum number of lorry movements would be 50 a day for 12 weeks. The company had agreed to create passing places. It said the transport impacts would not be severe and planning policy was not breached.
Can the UK treat the waste?
Cuadrilla argued that the Environment Agency (EA) was satisfied there was enough capacity in the UK to treat the waste generated by the proposed sites and had issued environmental permits.
But Friends of the Earth said it would call a witness who would state that Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood would use 65% of UK waste treatment capacity.
FoE’s barrister, Estelle Dehon told the inspector:
“You must be satisfied that this issue is adequately addressed. There cannot be an assumption that this has been addressed because a waste permit was issued for the development. You, madam, have to be satisfied in planning terms that the waste will be satisfactorily disposed of.”
Cuadrilla said it had identified treatment works in northern England that could take the waste but it couldn’t identify them for commercial reasons. The company’s planning expert, Mark Smith, said this issue had been dealt with by the Environment Agency when it issued environmental permits. The inquiry should assume that the EA would do its job properly, he said.