Future planning policy for fracking in England could be set in the coming months in the rolling hills and copses of North Yorkshire.
The county, which hosts what’s likely to be the UK’s first high volume hydraulic fracture since 2011, is preparing for a crucial battle.
This is much bigger than the fight over a single site. And the outcome is vital to the industry and its opponents. Both sides are expected to use whatever they have to support their cause.
The battle focuses on the role of fracking in North Yorkshire’s long-term mineral strategy. The county is the first in England to produce a minerals plan that includes policies on high volume hydraulic fracturing.
The draft document for North Yorkshire, developed over the past four years, will be reviewed by a Government planning inspector during a hearing, known as an “examination in public”, probably in February or March.
The final document will set policy for the county until 2030 and is expected to be used as a template by other authorities across England.
A local campaign group opposed to fracking, Frack Free Ryedale, has made 21 responses, which it says will strengthen the draft plan. It is trying to raise £27,000 to employ a consultant to represent it at the examination in public (EiP). The group is seeking £10,000 from a national campaign because it believes the North Yorkshire plan will be a blueprint for fracking in the rest of England.
Frank Colenso, for Frack Free Ryedale, said:
“Naturally we do not want fracking anywhere or at any price.
“However, the EiP is our last opportunity to limit the impacts of fracking on local residents and the industrialization of our countryside.
“Based on industry responses to the consultation, we can expect Cuadrilla, INEOS, Third Energy and others to throw every resource at the EiP in order to loosen the planning regulations and to seek to allow fracking just about everywhere.
“We will defend the responses to ensure the plan provides adequate yet robust protections to existing communities and businesses from the recognised adverse and cumulative effects of this industrial development.”
Next week (11 January 2018), Ryedale District Council has called an extraordinary meeting to decide whether it should brief consultants to represent the council at the EiP. Details
The draft plan, written by North Yorkshire County Council, City of York and the North York Moors National Park Authority, has already revealed where at least some of the battle lines will be.
A key issue is likely to be the definition of fracking. The version of the plan submitted to the inspector has a different definition to that in the Infrastructure Act.
“For the purposes of the Plan ‘hydraulic fracturing’ includes the fracturing of rock under hydraulic pressure regardless of the volume of fracture fluid used.”
The shale gas companies, including INEOS, Third energy, Egdon Resources, and the industry umbrella group, UKOOG, have argued that the plan should use the Infrastructure Act definition.
This defines what is called “associated hydraulic fracturing” by the volume of fluid used: at least 1,000 cubic metres of fluid per fracking stage or a total of 10,000 cubic metres for all fracking stages.
The definition in the final North Yorkshire plan would be crucial if the government introduced legislation to implement an election promise to treat “non-fracking drilling” as permitted development.
Permitted development rights currently allow proposals to be carried out without the need to go through the full planning system.
This could mean that shale gas exploration wells where fracking is not planned – like those to be drilled this year by IGas in north Nottinghamshire – need not go through a public consultation and get permission from a council planning committee.
Similarly, proposed fracking operations using volumes under the limit in the Infrastructure Act could also avoid the full planning process. In North Yorkshire, there are concerns that this could mean that fracking operations using less than the Infrastructure Act limit could avoid the ban on hydraulic fracturing in the North York Moors National Park.
During the consultation on the draft, INEOS said the plan’s definition of fracking left it “unsound”. Egdon said the plan was “inconsistent with the statutory framework”. The drilling services company, Zetland Group, said there was “a need for consistency with the Infrastructure Act”.
Frack Free Ryedale said this week:
“The benefit to the fracking industry is a reduction in the need to apply for planning permission for more than an estimated 50% of wells. Frack Free Ryedale considers that ‘a frack is a frack’. The impacts on local residents, businesses, the environment and the landscape are significant, irrespective of any arbitrary volume.”
The draft plan proposed a maximum density of 10 well pads per 100 sq km. Some opponents of fracking have called for this density to be reduced to 10 pads per 1,300 sq km to comply with policies in the local Ryedale Plan.
The industry is seeking to remove any limits on well density. According to an article in this week’s Sunday Times, INEOS is looking to build 10-15 pads in a 10km by 10km area and drill up to 10 wells from each pad. DrillOrDrop asked INEOS three times to confirm these numbers but it did not respond to our questions.
Bans on fracking
The draft plan banned fracking in the North York Moors National Park and the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but not in the Vale of Pickering or the Yorkshire Wolds. Cllr Paul Andrews, a Ryedale District councillor, said this was inconsistent with the local Ryedale Plan.
Setback distances and buffers
The draft plan proposed that hydrocarbon developments within 500m of residential buildings and what it calls “sensitive receptors” would be approved only in exceptional circumstances.
In its comments on the plan Egdon wrote:
“There is no evidence that proposals for surface hydrocarbon development within 500m of residential buildings and other sensitive receptors are likely to have more adverse impact than proposals in excess of this distance.”
Setback distances for fracking in some US states are half a mile or just over 800m, although in other states they are much lower.
The draft plan also required oil and gas developments in areas 3.5km from National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to assess their impact on the designated landscapes.
Opponents of fracking have said this buffer zone should be wider and apply to other protected areas. Third Energy, in its response to a consultation on the draft, said:
“An arbitrary ‘buffer zone’ takes no regard of the temporary nature of any drilling and/or associated activity.”
This week’s Sunday Times said INEOS planned to lodge planning applications to drill up to 10 exploratory boreholes around the southern edge of the North York Moors.
Asked by DrillOrDrop whether this was accurate or imminent, INEOS did not respond. But it did say:
“INEOS Shale believes in the proven safety of shale extraction. Therefore whilst drilling will never take place in a National Park we can frack underneath without impact on the surface above. In support of this activity we want to do a geological survey in 2018 to build a 3D picture of the rock strata before drilling test wells to establish the best places for extraction.”
What happens next?
The Secretary of State has appointed the planning inspector, Elizabeth Ord, to conduct the examination in public of the North Yorkshire plan.
Her role is to determine whether the plan is sound and complies with all the legal requirements, including whether the plan’s policies are positively prepared, justified, effective and consistent with national policy.
Other mineral planning authorities – county councils, unitary authorities and national park authorities – are expected to watch closely the process in North Yorkshire as they develop fracking policies for their own new mineral plans.
At the time of writing, the date and venue of the examination had not been set. DrillOrDrop will be reporting from examination.