A Cuadrilla shale gas site, next to an internationally important bird reserve, will not be returned to farmland for another year because of the way planning conditions were written.
Cuadrilla said last year it would plug its well at Becconsall next to the Ribble estuary and restore the site by 31 October 2016 to meet requirements set by Lancashire County Council.
A Lancashire planning officer also told local people that the work had to be completed by this date.
But it has now emerged that the wording of the conditions gives Cuadrilla at least another year to carry out the work at Becconsall.
Ribble Estuary Against Fracking has accused Cuadrilla of attempting to mislead the local community. The company said it has “consistently kept local stakeholders well informed”.
Cuadrilla’s operations at Becconsall
The Becconsall site is meters away from the shores of the estuary, designated for its important populations of wintering ducks and geese.
Cuadrilla has been involved there for more than six years. It has submitted three separate planning applications for the site, including one for an exploratory shale gas well, drilled in 2011.
The most recent application in 2014 sought permission for three years to carry out pressure testing, then plugging and abandoning the well, followed by site restoration.
At the meeting to decide the application, Lancashire County Council’s planning officer, Stuart Perigo, said the work could be carried out in two years and the site restored by the end of October 2016.
He told the development control committee meeting in September 2014:
“[Two years] would ensure that the land would be restored back to agriculture at the earliest opportunity, would not permanently encroach on the countryside, would not result in the irreversible development of open, agricultural land and would not result in the permanent loss of the best and most versatile agricultural land.”
The committee approved the application. Because of delays over creating a feeding area for wintering birds, the permission was not confirmed until 1 May 2015.
The duration of the permission remained at three years, with an expiry date of May 2018. But the permission came with key conditions designed to prevent disturbing the birds and to ensure the site was restored by October 2016.
The conditions said:
- No activity, apart from routine visits, shall take place on the site during the wintering wildfowl season between 31 October and 31 March.
- If pressure monitoring equipment is installed before 1 November 2014 the site shall be restored by no later than 31 October 2016
- If pressure monitoring equipment is installed after 31 March 2015 it must be in place by 31 May 2015 and the site restored by no later than 31 October 2016
None of the 21 other conditions attached to the permission said what should happen about restoration if pressure monitoring equipment was not installed and no testing carried out.
No-one appeared to have raised this at the planning meeting or to have paid attention to it until the past few months.
No pressure testing
Cuadrilla did not install pressure testing equipment before 1 November 2014 or by 31 May 2015.
In September 2015, planning officer Stuart Perigo told Ribble Estuary Against Fracking (REAF):
“The applicant has advised that there is no intention to pursue operations on this site and that the well will be abandoned and capped in accordance with the planning permission next year following the end of the winter wildfowl season.”
Two months later, on 18 November 2015, Cuadrilla made a statement that it had decided not to carry out pressure testing at Becconsall. It said it had not been able to install the equipment by the 31 May 2015 deadline.
The statement, which remains on the company’s website, continued:
“In accordance with the planning consent well plugging and site restoration work will be carried out after the wintering bird’s season, ending 31st March 2016 and before the deadline set by Lancashire County Council of 31st October 2016. Cuadrilla will inform local residents in advance of exactly when the work will begin next year.”
Two days later, Mr Perigo told REAF:
“They [Cuadrilla] have confirmed that the well will be plugged and abandoned next year and before the 31st October as provided for by their planning permission”.
As the October 2016 deadline approached, REAF contacted Lancashire County Council again. But this time the council’s stance on the restoration date had changed.
Mr Perigo’s replacement, Jonathan Haine, told the group the site did not have to be restored until 2018 when the planning permission expired because no pressure testing had been carried out.
Mr Haine wrote:
“The County Council has recently had discussions with Cuadrilla about the restoration of this site. Condition 1 of the permission provides for a restoration date of 31/10/16 in the event that the site is used for pressure testing. The operator has confirmed that no such pressure testing will be undertaken in which case the site has to be restored within three years of the date of the permission as per the title of the application.”
He conceded that the conditions were “slightly illogical” but said the council was bound by the wording.
A spokesperson for Lancashire County Council told DrillOrDrop:
“As there is no specific condition dealing with the position where no pressure monitoring equipment is installed, the control has to be through the wording of the title of the decision notice where it is clear that permission is granted to retain the site for a further period of three years.
“The subsequent permission was awarded on 1 May 2015, giving them until 1 May 2018 to carry this out.”
The spokesperson added:
“For this reason, the county council cannot require the site to be restored by 31 October 2016.”
In practice, restoration must now be completed by 31 October 2017. This is because another condition prevents work during the wintering bird season (31 October-31 March) and restoration would take longer than the month remaining from 1 April 2018 to 1 May 2018, when the permission expires.
Some people living near Becconsall have said they are concerned that the extra year Cuadrilla now has at the site will allow the company to carry out additional work. They are also suspicious about Cuadrilla’s operations at Becconsall.
- The company breached its 90-day drilling limit in 2011
- A proposed feeding area for wintering birds in the latest application had already been leased to a wildfowl shooting club. (See DrillOrDrop report)
John Powney, of REAF, said:
“The history of the Becconsall site reveals the blatant disregard Cuadrilla have for local residents and for one of the UK’s most important wetland sites.
“The breach of their permitted 90 day drilling limit on the Biological Heritage Site threatened the ongoing success of the over wintering bird population, protected by European law through the RAMSAR convention.
“Cuadrilla’s latest attempt to mislead the local community over restoration completion dates confirms that this company is not to be taken at its word and any suggestion of concern for residents or the surrounding environment is given only to appease.”
Doreen Stopforth, one of the nearest residents to Becconsall, wrote to Cuadrilla about its restoration plans. She said:
“I was surprised to read in my reply from Cuadrilla that they suggest they have until 2018 before they need to vacate and restore the Becconsall site to agricultural use. This is because on their website it stated that, as part of the planning conditions they would be required to fulfil this by October 2016.”
A spokesperson for the company said:
“We are in the process of updating the website information. We actually contacted all local stakeholders back in September to update them on the news regarding that site.”
The spokesperson added:
“We have in no way attempted to mislead the community and have in fact consistently kept local stakeholders well informed ahead of any planned operations. We had originally planned the well plugging and restoration work at Becconsall for this year but have decided from an operational management perspective it would be best to postpone this work to 2017. Planning consent for this site is valid until 2018.”
In the meantime, Cuadrilla has had pre-application discussions with Lancashire County Council about changes to a condition on noise levels at Becconsall.
Mr Haine told REAF:
“Cuadrilla have requested advice on a variation to that condition as they consider that the requirement to achieve the stated noise levels on the site boundary would make it impossible to complete the restoration works without breaching the condition. Cuadrilla are considering the advice that the County Council has provided.”
As yet, Cuadrilla has not applied for a variation. Its spokesperson said:
“Obviously we have planning consent for the well plugging and restoration work until 2018 and as with any operations we will thoroughly review the associated planning conditions as part of our pre-works planning.”