On Friday (20 May) councillors in North Yorkshire will meet to decide whether to approve what could be the UK’s first fracked shale gas well for more than five years.
The county council’s Planning and Regulatory Functions Committee will hear arguments in favour and against plans by Third Energy to frack its existing KM8 well at Kirby Misperton.
The authority’s planners have already recommended approval. They concluded there were no “material adverse impacts of the development” that would outweigh the benefits.
They said a range of impacts would be inevitable, even with mitigation measures proposed by Third Energy. But these were not considered “unacceptable or of such concern to warrant refusal”. The planners said experts they had consulted accepted the findings of Third Energy’s experts.
But the planners acknowledged there was “a high level” of public interest in the proposal. Parish and town councils in the area have objected, along with all but 32 of the 4,200+ comments on the scheme. The campaign group, Frack Free Ryedale, has instructed a QC to outline how councillors can reject the application on defendable planning grounds.
In this post, we review the key issues that the committee will need to consider when making its decision.
Planning application process
Opponents have argued that the scheme does not follow National Planning Practice Guidance which says oil and gas applications should be treated in three separate phases: exploration, appraisal and production.
Third Energy has put five phases of work into one application:
- Pre-stimulation workover (two weeks)
- Hydraulic fracture and well test (six weeks)
- Production test (90 days)
- Production (nine years)
- Site restoration (six weeks)
Opponents argued that approval of this application would set a precedent for more wells on the site and nearby. They also said the application was premature because there were gaps in regulations and too many unknowns about the fracking process. Supporters argued that the UK and the gas industry in North Yorkshire had a good safety record.
County council planners said the starting point for deciding the application had to be the local development plan. They argued that the scheme complied, or did not conflict, with policies on minerals development. They also said it did not conflict with policies on highways, ecology, restoration, archaeology, flooding, land instability, cumulative impact and preventing harm to residents.
The planners acknowledged that there was limited conflict with policies on air quality and noise but not enough to justify a refusal.
Opponents have argued that adverse impacts from the scheme significantly outweigh the benefits and so the scheme does not comply with Paragraph 14 of the National Planning Policy Framework.
They also argued that the scheme breached more than 10 policies in the development plan. Their reasons included: the nine-year+ timescale of the scheme; the size of structures on the site; dust; traffic; emissions; risk to surrounding land; inappropriate rural diversification; prevention of safe access to local rights of way; too many unknowns; impact on peace and tranquillity of the area; no net gain in biodiversity; threat to ecosystems, water courses and the aquifer; and failure of the application to identify all relevant developments to consider properly cumulative impact.
The noisiest phases of the scheme will be the pre stimulation workover and hydraulic fracturing. Third Energy has said the biggest impacts will be at Alma Farm and Kirby 0’Carr Farm and 5 Shire Close. The company predicted noise levels at these properties would reach up to 60-75 decibels during hydraulic fracturing without a noise barrier and 50-60 decibels with one in place.
County council planners said the predicted noise would not conflict with local planning policy and impacts of noise would not justify refusing the application. But opponents argued that local tranquillity would be lost for ten years. They said villagers had already been “badly disturbed” during drilling the well in 2013. They said the noise assessment was inappropriate and underplayed the impacts. Setting noise limits at the maximum in the guidelines was inappropriate in a rural area.
Third Energy proposes to install two lighting towers 8m high, each comprising four metal halide lamps, each of 1,000w power. They would be in place during the first two phases of the work. County council planners said the towers would be sited inside a proposed noise barrier and would not be visible, apart from the glow above. During the 90-day production test, there would be one lighting tower and this would be visible because the noise barrier would have been removed by then.
Opponents have said there are currently no night-time activities in the area that need lighting. To introduce a significant level of lighting to a particularly dark, rural area, would have a significant impact on residents and visitors.
Opponents have raised concerns about the effects of dust, particles and traffic fumes from the proposal. They argued that the proposed air monitoring was inadequate and that benzene emissions from the site may exceed acceptable levels. They said there was no reference in Third Energy’s air quality evidence on the release of radon or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They also said there were failings in the conclusions of the company’s experts.
Third Energy has said it will not flare any waste gas from the well and venting of wells is usually prohibited. But opponents have raised questions about how Third Energy will deal with any problems with wellbore pressure.
County council planners said if best practice were followed and adequate mitigation undertaken there would not be significant or adverse impacts on air quality.
Water quality and supply
Opponents have argued that the application does not protect water quality from pollution to surface and groundwater. They said
- The proposed use of fresh water to frack the well was unsustainable
- Chemicals used in the process would be hazardous
- Safeguards proposed by Third Energy were inadequate
- Proposed storage for fresh water and hydraulic fracturing fluid is insufficient.
Council planners said they were satisfied that the risk to water quality was very low and measures proposed would prevent contamination. They did, however, identify a contradiction in application documents about whether fluids would be subject to UV treatment.
Third Energy proposes to use a total of 4,000m3 in the main five-stage frack and an initial or mini frack. But opponents note the application does not specify volumes for the main and mini fracks.
Opponents have also identified four potential drinking water sources within a 300m radius of the site. They said surface spills would risk pollution to farmland, groundwater and wildlife. They said the existing site does not have an impermeable membrane used to contain spills. They asked for clarification about how this would be retrofitted.
Waste treatment and disposal
Third Energy proposes to reuse flowback – the liquid produced after a fracking treatment. This comprises fracking fluid, produced water from the rock formation as well as suspended solids, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM).
Third Energy predicted 30-50% of the fluid put down the well would return as flowback. But opponents questioned the evidence on which this was based. Opponents said if flowback included NORM it would require disposal at a specific licensed operator with special containment and management measures. They said the application gave no details about where the waste would be treated or disposed.
Opponents were concerned that the application gave little detail on gas production. They argued that the five fractures proposed were unlikely to support nine years of gas production.
Third Energy proposes to pipe produced gas to the Knapton electricity generating station in Ryedale. Opponents argued that the station was half as efficient as newer models. Some estimated that 70% of the gas recovered to generate electricity would be wasted. It was also argued that 60% of the recovered energy would be used in the extraction process so it was “massively inefficient”.
During the pre-stimulation and fracking programme, there are an estimated 12 days when the site would generate 15-48 HGV trips in a day. But county council planners said the proposal did not conflict with local planning policy on traffic grounds.
Opponents argued that the volume of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in the initial phases was not acceptable in a quiet rural location. They said it would lead to unacceptable conflicts with other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders and people waiting at bus stops. There was particular potential for conflict on the access road to Kirby Misperton.
They predicted increased traffic, particularly HGVs, would increase the risk of accidents and would prevent safe access to public rights of way. They also said the transport assessment was inadequate and surveys were not conducted during school holidays or when Flamingo Land was open. They asked for more details on the impact of waste water disposal on traffic. And they argued that proposed measures to reduce traffic impacts were “both inadequate and insufficient”.
Frack Free Ryedale has criticised Third Energy for not providing an updated traffic management plan, as requested, or giving information about the total volume of traffic generated by the scheme.
Landscape and visual impact
Third Energy proposes to erect a screen made of 42 shipping containers, stacked three high, to act as a sound barrier. An alternative scheme combines one layer of shipping containers and an acoustic screen mounted on scaffolding. The company said this would be in place for eight weeks during the work-over and fracking stages. County Council planners said there was a limited conflict with policies in the local plan but it said impacts on the landscape would not be significant or adverse enough to refuse the scheme on this ground alone.
Opponents have argued the proposal is not appropriate in the area and the cumulative impacts of the shale gas industry, while hard to resist, would degrade the landscape.
They also argued that the site was in an Area of Landscape of Local Value. They said there were weaknesses in the company’s landscape and visual impact assessment and there had been no assessment of the effect on the Fringe of the Moors Area of High Landscape Value less than 4km away.
Supporters argued that the county should be a place to live and work, rather than become a museum.
Seismic activity and vibration
Third Energy said the operation would follow the government’s guidelines on seismicity, known as the traffic light system. This requires fracking to stop if seismic activity reaches levels of 0.5 on the Richter scale.
Opponents said the KM8 well passes through a fault and the company had not provided information on land stability issues. People said old stone houses in the area were not built on foundations so could be vulnerable to seismic activity or vibration. There also said Third Energy’s assessment should have considered the risks of seismic activity from the combined activities of KM8 and nearby KM3. It should also have looked at the impact on the pipeline network.
County council planners said these issues were not grounds for refusing the application.
Third Energy said the project would have a neutral effect on local ecology. But opponents argued that it could contaminate wildlife habitats. They said it would result in no net gain for biodiversity and was therefore in breach of local and national planning policy. They also questioned the methodology of Third Energy’s ecological assessments and called for detailed surveys on the impact of the proposals on bats, barn owls, great crested newts and otters.
Third Energy has said the greenhouse gas emissions from the application would be a maximum of 2,602 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 0.0014% of UK emissions in 2013. County council planners said it would be unreasonable to consider the application’s contribution to climate change as grounds for refusal. But opponents argued that the release of additional new greenhouse gases meant the scheme fell outside Climate Change Act.
Opponents also said greenhouse gas emissions from the Knapton generating station that were connected to the application should be considered in the decision. This was because case law had made it clear, they said, that sites which were “functionally interdependent” must be assessed as a single project. Opponents also argued that methane emissions had not been addressed and these were not as tightly controlled as the application suggested.
North Yorkshire County Council’s planners said the KM8 well would be examined by independent qualified experts throughout the operation. Well integrity would also be regulated by the Environment Agency and Department of Energy and Climate Change, they said.
But opponents said Third Energy had failed to disclose adequate information on the suitability of KM8 for fracking. They said it was unclear how the council could be satisfied that impacts could, or would be, adequately addressed.
Opponents suggested that the pipeline from the KM8 well to Knapton was past its predicted life span. Should the pipelines become unusable, they raised concerns about the impact on storage of waste and Third Energy’s operations at its other sites in the area.
Opponents were concerned about the impacts of traffic and vibration on the nearby Grade II listed Costa Beck Bridge. Ground vibration and seismicity would create unacceptable risks to this and other local heritage, including the 14th century church in Kirby Misperton, they said.
Opponents also argued that Third Energy’s impact assessment was inadequate. They said the cumulative impact on heritage, as well as landscape, residents and biodiversity outweighed any need for the development.
County council planners said the scheme did not conflict with local planning policy designed to protect heritage features.
Supporters said the application would allow the UK to use indigenous resources. It would be an opportunity, rather than a threat, and would help to secure jobs, they said. County Council planners said the scheme did not conflict with local planning policy on the economy.
But opponents have argued that the scheme does not comply with the National Planning Policy Framework because no new jobs would be created and further employment was unlikely. They said fracking would discourage people from visiting Ryedale, which, they said, relied heavily tourism. Opponents also said Third Energy had failed to take into account the wider impacts on the local economy and proposed 24-hour working during parts of the scheme could reduce visitor numbers at the nearby tourist attraction of Flamingo Land.
County council planners concluded that there were no grounds to refuse the application because of its cumulative impacts.
But opponents said Third Energy’s assessment was flawed because it had not identified all relevant local developments and associated infrastructure. They said there were questions about the cumulative risk to groundwater posed by the KM3 and KM8 wells because Third Energy is currently disposing of large quantities of waste into formations immediately below rocks holding groundwater.
Opponents also questioned how long Third Energy would be responsible for the well, after production ended. There were calls for a bond to protect people and the environment from potential problems.
DrillorDrop.com will be reporting live from the meeting of the Planning and Regulatory Functions Committee in the Grand Meeting Room, County Hall, Northallerton on Friday 20 May, starting at 10am.