2016 saw the first approvals for high volume hydraulic fracturing in the UK since fracking caused small earthquakes in Lancashire in 2011.
The first shale gas site in the East Midlands also got the go-ahead and planning applications for exploration and production using acidisation were submitted in southern England and Lincolnshire.
The government extended the time for exploration in parts of the UK but now faces a legal challenge.
Opposition to fracking reached record levels, according to government surveys. Protesters took to the streets in several rallies and they established protection camps at sites around the country.
(To read the original DrillOrDrop posts click on the links marked in red.)
Cuadrilla’s Lancashire fracking plans
On 6 October, the Communities and Local Government Minister, Sajid Javid, gave the go-ahead to Cuadrilla to frack at Preston New Road near Blackpool, overruling the decision by Lancashire County Council.
He also said he was minded to approve fracking at Roseacre Wood – again overturning the council’s decision – and he reopened a public inquiry on the application. Key details of his decision The date and location of the reopened inquiry has yet to be confirmed.
Mr Javid’s decision came despite a petition signed by 180,000+ people urging him to respect Lancashire’s decision, made in June 2015. He followed the recommendation of a planning inspector on the Preston New Road site but overruled her advice on Roseacre Wood.
The inspector, Wendy McKay, had chaired a public inquiry at Blackpool Football Club on the applications during February and March.
She heard evidence from 26 expert witnesses and 143 members of the public during the 19 days of hearings. She also visited the sites and the areas around them.
DrillOrDrop and Steve Becker, of BBC Radio Lancashire, reported from every day of the inquiry. Participants were shocked by Steve’s death on his way to the final day on 16 March. A fund opened in his memory. See also reflections from the inquiry.
On 25 November, Greenpeace revealed emails that showed that the government had deliberately delayed the release of a report about the impacts of shale gas until after Lancashire County Council decided on Cuadrilla’s fracking applications.
Third Energy approval and challenge
On 23 May, North Yorkshire County Council’s planning committee voted by seven votes to four to approve Third Energy’s planning application to frack its KM8 well at Kirby Misperton.
The decision meant KM8 would probably be the first shale gas well to be fracked in the UK since 2011.
Reached after two days of testimony, the vote was met with shouts and tears from opponents inside and outside county hall in Northallerton.
Oil and gas companies described the decision as “a first step” to a UK shale gas industry. Third Energy said the result was a “huge responsibility”. Its chairman, Rasik Valland, said:
“We will have to deliver on our commitment, made to the committee and to the people of Ryedale, to undertake this operation safely and without impacting on the local environment.”
During a judicial review hearing on 22-23 November, they argued that the council had not fully considered the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and had misdirected councillors over a financial bond.
But in a reserved judgement on 20 December, Mrs Justice Lang rejected the claims and gave Third Energy the go-ahead. Within hours, an anti-fracking camp was set up near the shale gas site, supported by Frack Free Kirby Misperton.
Third Energy continues to negotiate with North Yorkshire County Council over conditions of the planning permission.
IGas evicts Upton camp and then abandons site
On 12 January, enforcement officers working for IGas evicted the Upton Community Protection Camp from the Duttons Lane exploratory gas site. Nine people were arrested in an operation supported by 175 police officers from four forces, at an estimated cost of £200,000
Less than four weeks later, on 5 February, IGas announced it was leaving Duttons Lane. In a statement, the company said:
“IGas has concluded that the sites at Duttons Lane and Salters Lane do not meet its criteria for commercial CBM development. IGas has therefore decided not to progress with these CBM exploration wells under the current planning permissions.”
Chester MP, Chris Matheson, and Cheshire’s police and crime commissioner, John Dwyer, demanded IGas pay towards the costs of the eviction. Mr Dwyer said
“I’m outraged, frankly, that IGas have managed to take this decision so shortly after choosing to enforce the eviction.”
Record levels of opposition
In October, the most recent government survey of attitudes to shale gas recorded a fall in support to 17%, the lowest since the question was first asked. Opposition reached 33%, also a record.
The same month, a survey by Nottinghamshire University also reported a fall in support. This survey, which has always recorded higher levels of backing for fracking, saw opposition overtake support for the first time since 2012.
Surveys in the Cheshire villages of Mickle Trafford and Guilden Sutton, both in exploration licence PEDL189 held by IGas and INEOS, found a majority of residents opposed fracking.
INEOS, in contrast, told journalists its surveying found a majority in favour. The company told DrillOrDrop the findings were based on feedback forms filled in by 84 who attended four meetings for local councillors in Cheshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire and votes by 356 people in a voting box on the INEOS stand at the Royal Cheshire and Malton shows.
Protests and rallies
February saw a stand-off between police and protesters at Woodburn Forest oil site, operated by InfraStrata, in Carrickfergus. In June, InfraStrata announced it was abandoning the site.
In February and March, opponents of flow tests at the Horse Hill oil site near Gatwick, took part in slow walks in front of lorries and lock-on protests. People at an equestrian centre reported nosebleeds and headaches.
On 1 April 2016, anti-fracking campaigners marked five years since the Preese Hall earthquake with a “wake-up call” protest.
The actor Emma Thompson, taking part in a ‘Bake-off’ protest at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in April, was sprayed with manure by the landowner. Also in April, MPs received a legal notice on what campaigners said were the risks of fracking.
In a test case in January, two people arrested almost two years before for waking in front of lorries outside the IGas site at Barton Moss, were acquitted. District Judge Nicholas Sanders, sitting at Manchester Magistrates Court, said:
“They were entitled to demonstrate, were entitled to walk along Barton Moss Road.
“Their culpability, such as it was, was not to walk at the speed which had been imposed upon protesters by the police without warning or explanation.”
Also in January, a man was found guilty of aggravated trespass, following his so-called `doughnut‘ protest at Barton Moss. He was arrested after kneeling down in front of police lines with a plate full of doughnuts and a sign reading “What will you tell your grandkids?”.
On 17 June, nine anti-fracking campaigners on trial on charges arising from protests outside Horse Hill were acquitted at a trial in Redhill (pictured above). The district judge, William Ashworth, says of the police:
“It is a shame they did not reach an accommodation to allow the protests to proceed in a manner that did not require arrests.”
On 25 July, another eight opponents of the Horse Hill operations at Horse Hill were found guilty and one was acquitted.
On 7 June, a judge dismissed the case against five people arrested during protests against the eviction of the camp at the IGas site at Upton, near Chester. Another two people were found guilty of resisting bailiffs and an eighth person was found not guilty. The case against the final person arrested has been delayed until 2017.
Also in June, the anti-fracking campaigner, Tina Rothery, refused at Blackpool Magistrates Court to pay a £55k+ legal bill incurred by Cuadrilla in a long-running court case dating back to 2014. Ms Rothery also refused to provide details to the court about her finances. She was ruled to be in contempt of court and on 27 September was served with papers ordering her to appear for a final time in court before spending two weeks in Styall Prison.
At a private hearing on 9 December, a judge at Preston Combined Court discharged the contempt of court and said Ms Rothery would not be sent to jail. Cuadrilla said it would not pursue her for the money and she swore an oath that previous information she had given on her finances was accurate. Afterwards, she said:
“I see this as a victory for truth. I see it as a victory for honesty because corporations have a lot of power and a lot of money. I will walk away from here and Cuadrilla will no longer pursue me for the costs.”
Fracking and counter-terrorism
During 2016, DrillOrDrop began reporting about links made by police and the security services between anti-fracking campaigners and counter-terrorism.
On 6 January, we published an interview with the campaigner and broadcaster, Ian R Crane, who described how he had been detained under the Terrorism Act after arriving at Exeter Airport. He said he was later released without charge.
In April, evidence in a High Court hearing revealed that Mr Crane was under surveillance for his role in anti-fracking protests. The hearing was part of a long-running case by Rathlin Energy, which was seeking legal costs from Mr Crane. On 4 May, the company secured a bankruptcy order against him.
In November, there were several challenges by anti-fracking campaigners to the way police had labelled them as domestic extremists under the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy. In response to the publicity, City of York and a school in East Yorkshire removed the reference to anti-fracking protests in their versions of the strategy. But campaigners in Yorkshire called for the removal of fracking from all lists of potential extremists.
Government leaks, licences and fracking bans
On 31 January, a leaked letter revealed government plans to take over decisions on fracking. The letter, published by The Telegraph, was signed by the then environment, energy and communities secretaries, Liz Truss, Amber Rudd and Greg Clark. They proposed to classify fracking sites as “nationally significant infrastructure”. If approved this would give decisions to unelected planning inspectors. Friends of the Earth, which obtained the document, described the proposal as “an attack on democracy”.
Despite this, industry bosses were questioning whether the government was doing enough to help them.
On 18 May, Cuadrilla’s CEO, Francis Egan, right, said the government was not delivering on its commitment to require local authorities to decide shale gas applications in 16 weeks. He said:
“The words are good, the intent is good but the delivery is not. Investors have patience but it’s not limitless.”
The next day, the head of sustainability at IGas predicted problems for the shale gas industry in the north west. Gary Stringer said:
“In the north west it’s going to be incredibly difficult. The groups over there are organised, very very effective in terms of the language that they use and to sensationalise absolutely everything.”
The then Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, told MPs on 12 May that local people knew best on fracking. She said there would be “no compromise” on taking account of the views of local communities on fracking. But later that month, opponents of fracking in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, questioned whether the government really meant this. They pointed to the fact that more than 3,000 people objected to Third Energy’s planning application to frack at Kirby Misperton and other 36 people were in favour.
On 29 June, the government confirmed a ban on fracking for shale gas from the surface of certain protected areas. But it said the restriction did not apply to wells drilled from outside and underneath the areas. And the ban did not apply to coal bed methane, underground coal gasification or conventional drilling. The restriction would be added to licences offered in the 14th round and for earlier licences, the government said the Energy Secretary would “not be minded” to approve hydraulic fracturing in protected areas.
The areas included in the ban were:
- Sites of Special Scientific Interest
- Internationally-protected Ramsar wildlife sites
- European designated Natura 2000 wildlife sites
- National Parks
- The Broads
- Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
- World Heritage Sites
- Groundwater Source Protection Zone (SPZ) 1
Earlier that month, on 15 June, the government ruled out setting national limits on the number of fracking sites in shale gas areas. And it refused to set a minimum distance between wells and homes. In a reply to the Thirsk and Malton MP, Kevin Hollinrake, the minister, 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.”
On July 1, The Oil and Gas Authority confirmed it had given oil and gas companies in 17 existing PEDL licences more time to carry out exploration. 14 licences were relinquished and in another five companies gave back part of their acreage. New agreements on drilling, fracking and seismic surveys were agreed in 16 licence areas.
July also saw Theresa May become Prime Minister. One of her early moves was to abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change and move responsibilities to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. On 8 August, she proposed direct payments to residents in fracking areas. The money would come from a shale wealth fund, paid for by tax on production profits. Fracking opponents say its bribery. A public consultation opened and the results have not yet been published.
In September, Labour said it would ban fracking in government. In October, the Oil and Gas Authority became an independent government company.
On 15 December, campaigner Ben Dean won the right to challenge the government in court over what he claims is the “unlawful” extension of a shale gas exploration licence in Cheshire. He was also granted the right to bring the case under the Aarhus Convention, which will limit any costs he has to pay if he loses to £5,000. The government said it would contest this in the Court of Appeal. There is no date yet for the main hearing.
Fracking in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
The Scottish Parliament voted on a non-binding motion for a ban on fracking (1 June) after the ruling SNP abstained. And in Northern Ireland, ministers announced the end to permitted development rights for oil and gas exploration (6 June). This means companies will have to apply for planning permission in future.
On 8 November, the Scottish Government published research reports on fracking. It also announced that it would decide in 2017 on whether to allow fracking or continue the current moratorium.
The Welsh government announced in February that unconventional oil and gas applications must be referred to Welsh ministers where local authorities were minded to approve them. The measure was extended in March to applications for underground coal gasification.
On 5 May, Gary Haywood, chief executive of INEOS Shale, announced:
“We are firing the starting gun on our programme.”
The company, the most successful in last year’s 14th round, said seismic surveying would be carried out this summer and planning applications submitted later in the year. On 17 July, Tom Crotty, a director at INEOS, told the FT the company planned to lodge 30 applications for shale gas test wells in the next six months. It hoped to start drilling early in 2017 and extracting gas within 18 months.
So far, INEOS has not submitted any planning applications for shale gas exploration. But two related companies acting for INEOS and local landowners in negotiations for access for seismic monitoring are under investigation for a potential conflict of interest.
On 30 September, IGas published a warning with its interim accounts about the ability of the company to operate as a going concern. It said the company’s future depended on future cash flows and bonds not becoming payable earlier than their stated maturity date. IGas had talks with bondholders during October over relaxing liquidity obligations. On 4 November, the company avoided a covenant breach but it continued to predict it would not comply with its leverage covenants at 31 December 2016.
South West Energy gave up its licences in the Forest of Dean and Wiltshire in September. But in December the company’s chairman, Gerwyn Williams (pictured left) told the BBC his company will be drilling for gas in Somerset in two years.
UKOG took over PEDL234 in the West Sussex Weald from Celtique Energie in August. Celtique pulled out of two new oil and gas exploration licences in the East Midlands in October.
Also in October, Cuadrilla published its annual accounts for the year to 31 December 2015, revealing mounting losses. The company lost $17.6m, compared with $11.568m for the previous year. Expenses were similar but revenue from the well services business, including rig hire, was down to $219,000, compared with $5.17 for the previous year.
And in October, Europa recorded a record £1.9m pre-tax loss. The company said it hoped production would begin in early 2017 at Wressle in North Lincolnshire, subject to granting of planning permission.
On 6 December, Company’s House warned Third Energy that its accounts, overdue since 30 September, must be filed within two months or the company would be struck off the register.
Shale gas in the East Midlands
On 15 November, Nottinghamshire County Council granted planning permission for the first shale gas site in the east Midlands.
The application, for Springs Road, Misson, in Bassetlaw, was opposed by the local parish council and Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust which manages a site of special scientific interest alongside. Another opponent, Friends of the Earth, said a covenant on the nature reserve could prevent drilling from the Springs Road site. The council said this was not a material planning issue. A legal agreement on restoration, monitoring and traffic management is expected to be finalised by early 2017.
The Environment Agency granted a permit in November for shale gas exploration at a second site in Nottinghamshire at Tinker Lane. A decision on planning permission had been expected in December but has been delayed until January.
“World-class” flow rates revealed at Horse Hill
Flow-testing of the Horse Hill exploratory oil well (above) got underway in February. By March, the companies investing in the site reported outstanding flow rates and said the results had caused them “recalibrate” their assumptions about oil in this part of the Weald. The site became known in the media as the Gatwick Gusher. In April, EY predicted that Weald oil production could generate £52bn but would need back-back drilling of production wells, with 2,400 boreholes at 100 locations. Opponents warned of increased air pollution, traffic and leaking wells as more wells were drilled, industrialisation of the area.
In July, UK Oil & Gas Investments plc (UKOG) gave details of plans for new wells and extended well testing at Horse Hill. The executive chairman promised the community a share of the revenues. The consortium submitted a planning application in November to Surrey County Council and a consultation on a new environmental permit began in December.
Other sites, applications and appeals
Egdon Resources spudded its Laughton-1 well in Lincolnshire on 12 February and announced on 23 March it was abandoning the site because hydrocarbon shows “below the cut-off used by the industry.
In February, Cuadrilla won its appeal over the refusal of planning permission for monitoring and site restoration at the Grange Hill site in Lancashire. The following month, Coastal Oil and Gas dropped its appeal against refusal of permission for unconventional gas exploration at Hendre Farm, Llanharran, in Rhondda Cynon Taff. The announcement came a week after the appeal validated.
In April, Rathlin Energy moved the last equipment of its Crawberry Hill site in East Yorkshire following restoration. The company had announced in August 2015 it was abandoning the site for technical and commercial reasons. Another Rathlin site in East Yorkshire at West Newton B wellsite was granted an environmental permit on 8 August. Planning permission for a 24-month temporary well site had been granted in June 2015. So far, the only work carried out has been on meeting pre-operational conditions.
Surrey County Council gave the go-ahead in March for 15 years of oil and gas production at the IGas site at Bletchingley.
In April, documents revealed that an IGas subsidiary, Star Energy, had acquired two new sites at Bridge Trafford in Cheshire. Beef farmer, Huw Rowlands, (left) said the sites, 800m apart, put his land under siege from fracking. Campaigners said they were near the epicentre of an 18th century earthquake.
In June, Egdon Resources applied for planning permission for 15 years of oil production at its Wressle site in Lincolnshire. The application included side-track and radial drilling from the Wressle-1 well, along with acidisation and proppant squeeze. A decision is expected early in 2017.
In July, Aurora carried out seismic testing in Sefton and West Lancashire, prompting complaints from some residents.
In September, InfraStrata put on hold its gas drilling plans for California Quarry in Dorset. A protection camp was established at the site on the edge of Swanage. In December, the planning permission expired and the camp was disbanded.
Also in September, UKOG applied for permission for 20 years of oil production at Markwells Wood in the South Downs National Park (left). The application included drilling a side-track from the existing borehole, along with three additional production wells, a water disposal well, acidisation and extended well testing. The Environment Agency, Portsmouth Water, Portsmouth City Council and most local councils have objected. In December, National Park planners asked the company for more details on its application. A decision is expected next year.
In October, Europa Oil & Gas applied for planning permission for extra security fencing and a bigger site area for its exploration operation at Bury Hill Wood, near Leith Hill in Surrey. Opponents established a camp at the site, in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A rally at Leith Hill (below) attracted hundreds of people against the operation.
In October, an illogical planning condition delayed the restoration of Cuadrilla’s site at Becconsall for another year.
In December, West Sussex County Council approved a draft waste and minerals plan, including a policy preventing fracking in national parks. There were calls for a specific policy on the use of acid in oil and gas exploration and production but this was not included in the draft. A public consolation opens in January.
Angus Energy carried out work in December on its Brockham oil site in Surrey. This could be in preparation for a side-track well but the company would give no details. Opponents have established a camp at the site. Also in December, UK Oil & Gas announced it would drill the oil exploration well at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex in the next six months and Angus
Four councils in the West County – Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean district and Watchet town – ended the year with votes against fracking.
On 23 February, the UK Energy Research Council said gas had only a minor role as a bridge to low carbon energy
In July, the government published advice from the Committee on Climate Change, submitted in March. This concluded that shale gas was inconsistent with UK climate targets unless three conditions were met:
- Well development, production and decommissioning emissions must be strictly limited.
- Gas consumption must remain in line with carbon budgets
- Additional production emissions from shale gas wells must be offset through reductions elsewhere.
The government said the tests could be met.
On the same day, the health charity Medact, concluded that the biggest health threat from fracking is its contribution to global climate change.
A report by the Natural Environment Research Council, NERC, concluded in May that waste water costs could make fracking uneconomic in the UK.
In August, researcher Anna Szolucha published a study which found that the prospect of fracking Lancashire had already caused stress, suspicion and fractured community.
In December, the US Environmental Protection Agency reversed its conclusion on fracking and drinking water contamination. The final version of its report concluded that fracking had contaminated drinking water in some circumstances.
On stage and in advertising
In July, the sell-out play about fracking Fracked! Or don’t mention the F-word, a new play by Alistair Beaton, opens in Chichester. In November, it gets a national tour.
In September the independent assessor of the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the watchdog’s ban on a Greenpeace fracking ad was “substantially flawed” and should be reversed.
A draft ruling by the ASA – leaked to The Times in September – found that a Friends of the Earth leaflet on fracking was misleading. Friends of the Earth said no final ruling had been made and called for an investigation into the leak. The final ruling has not yet been released.