The government has ruled out national limits on the number of fracking sites in shale gas areas. It has also refused to set a minimum distance between wells and homes.
The local government minister, James Wharton (pictured left), said setting limits could prevent shale gas development in some places. He also said limits might fail to provide what he called “appropriate protections”.
The statement came in his reply to a written question from the MP Kevin Hollinrake. His Thirsk and Malton constituency includes Kirby Misperton, where Third Energy received permission to frack last month.
Thirsk and Malton has 38 whole or part exploration licence blocks within its boundary, the highest of any constituency in the UK.
Industrialisation of the countryside was a key argument against Third Energy’s fracking application in at Kirby Misperton. The company told a House of Lords committee in 2015 that it would need up to 19 sites in the surrounding Ryedale area, each with 10-50 wells (DrillOrDrop report.
Mr Hollinrake (pictured right) has been calling for controls on site density including statutory buffer zones of six miles between sites and one mile gaps between sites and villages. He has also asked would-be producers to give him an idea of what his area would look like if shale gas developed.
In a written question to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr Hollinrake asked:
“Whether his Department has made an assessment of the potential merits of establishing clear national planning guidelines for the (a) maximum density of shale gas well sites per square mile and (b) minimum distances of such sites from towns and villages.”
The reply from James Wharton said
“Were limits to be set in national planning guidance, they may not provide appropriate protections in some contexts, or rule out otherwise acceptable development in others.”
DrillorDrop asked the MP’s office for his reaction to the minister’s reply. Mr Hollinrake, who chairs an parliamentary group on shale gas regulation, said he was not surprised. The minister’s response would be included in a report being compiled by the group, to be published by the end of the year, he said.
Earlier this month, Mr Hollinrake said people in his constituency were worried about the prospect of hundreds of wells in a square kilometre. Speaking at a meeting of the parliamentary group, he said it was unclear from planning guidance how many wells would be too many and how many too few (DrillOrDrop report).
“[Local residents] are certainly worried that producers might end up in charge of this process and drive a coach and horses through the planning process with the back-up of an independent inspector or the Secretary of State, [and] that they cannot hold back the proliferation around the countryside.
“Unless we give people that reassurance then we’re going to see resistance on environmental grounds.”
In his answer, Mr Wharton also suggested national limits were not needed. He said:
“The planning system currently requires shale well site density and distance to settlements to be considered where relevant in plan making and decisions on planning proposals, taking into account local context.”
There are currently no limits on site density or rules on minimum distances of sites from homes in the waste and minerals plans for North Yorkshire or for Lancashire, where Cuadrilla is contesting the refusal of permission to frack at two sites. There are also no specific limits proposed in the new draft minerals plan for West Sussex, where Cuadrilla has a wellsite at Balcombe and UK Oil and Gas acquired an exploration licence this month.
Lancashire County Council did not discuss well site density when it rejected Cuadrilla’s planning applications. Nor did North Yorkshire when it voted to approve Third Energy’s plans.
In the answer, Mr Wharton also said:
“For minerals such as shale gas, local authority mineral plans should set out environmental criteria for the assessment of applications and take into account cumulative effect of multiple impacts from individual sites and/ or from a number of sites in a locality. Planning law requires that decisions must be taken in accordance with the development plan for the local authority, including any relevant mineral plan policies, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.”
“In all cases, national planning policy must also be taken into account when applications are determined. This is clear that when a planning permission is granted for mineral development, including shale gas, there should be no unacceptable adverse impacts on the natural and historic environment, or on human health. It also ensures relevant cumulative effects are considered.”
Visualisation of shale gas in North Yorkshire
Mr Hollinrake chaired a summit on 8 February 2016 for would-be shale producers, including INEOS, Cuadrilla and Third Energy.
Afterwards, the companies promised to produce a visualisation of what North Yorkshire would look like if a shale gas industry developed.
Mr Hollinrake’s office confirmed to DrillOrDrop that more than four months on it had not received the visualisation and would be chasing it up. But the MP added later that the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, was working on guidelines on well and site density.
INEOS told DrillOrDrop that it estimates 10 sites each with 10-12 wells in a 10km x 10km square. An earlier diagram, which was part of a tender document to would-be contractors, showed 30 well sites in the same area, each with 12-14 wells. This was taken off the company’s website and described as incorrect.
Updated 16/6/2016 to remove the words: “told councillors in its licence areas” in the final paragraph
Updated 27/6/2016 with reaction by Kevin Hollinrake to the minister’s written answer
DrillOrDrop always welcomes comments on posts. In order to keep the comments area safe and legal, DrillOrDrop has a new commenting policy which you can read here.