The shale gas company, Cuadrilla, has applied for more time to restore an exploration site near the Ribble Estuary in Lancashire because it said the latest attempt has been prevented by nesting birds.
Little Ringed Plovers laid four eggs within 12m of the well head and work would have disturbed the nest, the company said.
Cuadrilla now wants another year to plug and abandon the well and restore the site at Becconsall, near Banks.
If the application is granted, this will be the fifth extension of planning permission at the site. It also means that restoration to farm land will have been delayed by more than six years.
The local campaign group, Ribble Estuary Against Fracking (REAF) said:
“Yet again we see Cuadrilla unable to work within their time conditions”.
Internationally-important wetland bird site
The Becconsall site is 700m from the Ribble Estuary, which is internationally-important for wetland birds. The estuary is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area and a Ramsar Site. The wellpad itself was part of a Biological Heritage Site.
Because of this, planners prohibited work on the well and restoration during the winter bird season, between October and the end of March.
Cuadrilla had between 1 April and the current deadline of 31 August to abandon the well and restore the site.
In its application to Lancashire County Council (LCC/2017/0064), the company said the nest was spotted in mid June. Cuadrilla said there would not be enough time to complete the work by the deadline after the eggs had hatched and the young were old enough to fly.
The company now proposes to plug and abandon the well and return Becconsall to farm land by the end of October 2018.
Local people have become suspicious about Cuadrilla’s intentions for Becconsall following the multiple extensions of planning permission.
The first application for the site, granted by a planning officer under delegated powers, required the company to complete restoration by 27 September 2012.
Since then the deadline has been reset to 28 March 2014, 28 September 2014, 31 October 2016 and 31 August 2017.
The well and a sidetrack was drilled between August and October 2011. But since then, no substantive work has been carried out at Becconsall.
The company announced plans in 2013 for a mini frack but withdrew them the next year. REAF said this followed its evidence of “functional links” between the site and the Ribble Estuary and a recently-extended RSPB reserve.
In November 2015, Cuadrilla said it had no plans for Becconsall and would restore the site by what was then the deadline of 31 October 2016. But, because of the wording of a planning condition, that date was also extended (DrillOrDrop report).
A spokesperson for REAF said:
“No site development has taken place since the completion of the drilling of the Becconsall wells in 2011.
“In 2016 no attempts were made to plug and abandon the well even though Cuadrilla stated they were bound by planning conditions to do so.
“This latest delay highlights how ecologically sensitive this area is and it is of great concern that Cuadrilla appear not to have arranged to carry out the plug and abandonment of the well after the birds have flown as there is ample time between the birds leaving and the start of the 2017 wintering bird period.
“It is astonishing that after seven years and numerous applications the site still remains open and that LCC have not imposed stronger measures to have the site returned to it’s original designated Biological Heritage Site status.”
A spokesperson for Cuadrilla said:
“Cuadrilla was due to start work this year to restore its Becconsall shale gas exploration site, located near Banks in Lancashire, to its original “Greenfield” status.
“However it is was not possible to do any works at the site as Little Ringed Plover birds were found in June to have nested just 12m from the well head.
“Any work would have caused disturbance to the nest which had four eggs. Guidelines for Little Ringed Plover indicate that eggs can take up to 30 days to hatch and the young take up to 25 days to fledge which would not have allowed Cuadrilla to start and complete the restoration work within the current planning permission deadline of 31st August 2017.
“Cuadrilla has therefore applied to Lancashire County Council to vary its planning consent to extend the current time limit to October 2018.
“The time extension would allow the company to begin the restoration work after the wintering birds season ends in March 2018 and complete it before the October 2018 deadline.”
A public consultation on Cuadrilla’s latest application for Becconsall runs until 30 August 2017. Link to application details
26 July 2010
Cuadrilla applies (08/10/0973) for temporary change of use from agriculture to site for drilling an exploratory borehole and testing for hydrocarbons.
20 October 2010
Permission granted under delegated powers for an exploration well at Becconsall. A condition requires the development to be completed and site restored within 18 months of the start of work. Decision notice
28 March 2011
Work started on the site. This means the deadline for completion of work and site restoration will be 27 September 2012.
23 August 2011
Becconsall well spudded.
13 October 2011
Horizontal side tracked spudded to “bypass equipment which had become stuck in the original borehole and could not be recovered”. Main well bore drilled to 10,500ft.
19 September 2012
Cuadrilla applies (08/12/1032) to vary the condition on work completion and site restoration for a further 18 months until 28 March 2014.
27 September 2012
Date by which the planning permission 08/10/0973 requires restoration to be completed.
6 June 2013
Cuadrilla submits an amendment to application 08/12/1032 to include a Diagnostic formation Injection Test or mini frack and a further extension of the time for work completion and site restoration until 28 September 2014. Amendment letter
27 March 2014
Cuadrilla applies (LCC/2014/0047) to retain the site for another three years to allow pressure monitoring, followed by plugging, abandonment and restoration.
21 May 2014
22 September 2014
Cuadrilla withdraws the whole application 08/12/1032 with immediate effect. Withdrawal letter
23 September 2014
Lancashire County Council’s development control committee approves application LCC/2014/0047 allowing Cuadrilla to retain Becconsall for three more years Officer’s report. But it is nine months before the decision notice is issued (see 1 May 2015) because of delays establishing a feeding area for wintering birds.
1 May 2015
Lancashire County Council issues decision notice granting permission for application LCC/2014/0047, nine months after the decision. A condition requires the site to be restored no later than 31 October 2016 if pressure monitoring equipment is installed.
18 November 2015
Cuadrilla announces it has no plans for development at Becconsall site and says it will restore the site in spring 2016 and before the 31 October 2016 deadline. DrillOrDrop report
28 October 2016
Lancashire County Council says the 31 October 2016 deadline for restoration does not apply because Cuadrilla did not install pressure monitoring equipment. The deadline is now extended to 1 May 2018 but in practice it is 31 October 2017 because another condition prevents work during the winter bird season (31 October-31 March) and there’s not enough time to do the work between 1 April 2018 and 1 May 2018. DrillOrDrop report
26 January 2017
Cuadrilla applies to increase height of rig at Becconsall from 22m to 32m as variation of a condition of planning permission LCC/2014/0047. Cuadrilla also applies (LCC/2017/0016) to increase permitted noise limits during plugging and abandoning the well and restoration to 55dB(a) 8am-9pm and 42db 9pm-8am when measured at the boundary of the nearest home. The previous condition restricted noise levels to 42db(A) when measured at any point on the site boundary.
1 March 2017
Lancashire County Council’s development control committee votes to increase noise limits to 50db LAeq (1 hour) (free field) when measured at any noise sensitive property and approves increased rig height to 32m. But it sets a deadline of 31 August 2017 for site restoration and limits working hours to 7.30am-6.30pm Monday-Friday and 7.30am-1pm on Saturdays. DrillOrDrop report
3 August 2017
Cuadrilla applies to extend for more than a year the time it has to restore Becconsall (LCC/2017/0064). This is a variation of the condition set on 1 March 2017. If approved, the site will not need to be restored until 31 October 2018. Application letter