Planners in the North York Moors appealed to INEOS to abandon plans to explore for shale gas under the national park. But according to minutes of a meeting last month INEOS refused.
The minutes, released following a Freedom of Information request by Greenpeace Unearthed, show that INEOS Commercial Director, Lynne Calder, and the company’s consultant, Katherine Blythe, met senior staff from the North York Moors National Park Authority.
The meeting was prompted partly by an article in the Sunday Times on 30 December 2017 about INEOS proposals in the area. The company’s operations director, Tom Pickering was quoted as saying:
“We can’t frack in national parks but we can frack under them by drilling sideways from points around the edges”.
At the time, Mr Pickering told DrillOrDrop:
“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.”
Today, Chris France, the Director of Planning at the North York Moors, said this was the first the national park authority had seen or heard about the potential intention to frack. He said:
“Our members and chief executive suddenly got quite concerned”.
According to correspondence also released under the FOI, the national park authority was telling Dr Blythe by early January:
“We are experiencing a huge amount of media interest and feel that we need to resolve the situation asap.”
What happened at the meeting?
The two sides met on 12 January 2018 at the National Park offices in Helmsley.
According to meeting minutes, Mr France and the authority’s chief executive, Andy Wilson, asked that INEOS:
“reconsidered its plans and abandon its intentions to explore and potentially exploit the shale gas beneath the National Park”.
The minutes said:
“Attention was drawn to the likely resources and time involved from many public bodies that would be drawn into a high profile and contentious programme of exploration in one of the country’s most sensitive and highly protected areas.
“CF [Chris France] also stated that this would seem not to be in the long-term interests of either the company or indeed the shale gas industry that needed to win public support and demonstrate environmental responsibility and safety if it is to progress nationally as the Government wishes it to.”
The minutes continued:
“LC [Lynn Calder] responded by declining the Authority’s request not to undertake exploration in the National Park and referred again to the legal obligations the company believes it is subject to through its PEDLs [Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences].”
Elsewhere in the minutes, Ms Calder said:
“the Company cannot state that it will not seek to frack for shale gas under North York Moors National Park.”
“The company had ‘no imminent plans to carry out hydraulic fracturing in the region’”.
and it had ‘no imminent plan to put an application in’.
But she also said:
“the company would be in the area ‘quite prominently’ sometime in the future”.
According to the minutes, this would be to:
“undertake exploration under their [INEOS’s] legal obligation to the government to do so”.
INEOS interest in the North York Moors
Fracking from the surface of National Parks was prohibited in the Infrastructure Act. But companies can frack underneath by drilling horizontal wells from sites outside the park boundary. This has prompted some opponents of fracking to forecast that National Parks could be surrounded by a so-called “ring of steel” of shale gas sites.
INEOS companies hold four licences which include parts of the North York Moors National Park.
The licences comprise:
- PEDL 285 – wholly in the National Park
- PEDL280 – south and west of Ampleforth
- PEDL 284 – north of Kirkby Moorside
- PEDL120 – stretching from Helmsley to the edge of Scarborough
All but PEDL120 were offered to INEOS in July 2016 and were classed as shale gas licences.
Dr Blythe told the National Park Authority on 4 December 2017 that PEDL285 had been acquired before the finalisation of the Infrastructure Act. In an email, also included in the FOI release, she described it as “not a priority at this time”.
The correspondence suggests that previously INEOS said PEDL285 was of “negligible interest” because, being wholly in the National Park, it could be developed only for conventional, rather than shale gas.
But Dr Blythe said INEOS still intended to carry out seismic surveying in the North York Moors.
In PEDL280, 284 and 285, INEOS must drill one well to a depth of 4,500m in each licence area. The licences do not specify where the well should be drilled. The company has also made firm commitments to carry out 25km of 2D seismic surveying in PEDL 280 and 285. The three licences currently require the company to do this work by July 2021.
PEDL120 is an older licence, granted in 2002 to Warwick Energy and acquired by INEOS in 2016. A document from the Oil and Gas Authority, the licence regulator, gives details of INEOS commitments for this PEDL. The licence is divided into two sections. In one section, known as Ebberston South, the company must:
- Submit a field development plan by 30 September 2018
- Begin production by 31 December 2020
In the other part of the licence, it must:
- Acquire new seismic data by 30 September 2018
- Submit a planning application to drill a well by 30 September 2020
- Drill a well by 30 September 2021
Public meetings and seismic testing
The correspondence also indicated that INEOS planned to host public meetings about its operations later this year.
The authority’s Head of Development Management, Mark Hill, wrote to Dr Blythe in November 2017. He said:
“We have just been giving some thought to the implications for the Authority when the INEOS public meetings start up approx. summer 2018, which you briefed us on.”
Mr Hill asked Dr Blythe whether the seismic survey work in the National Park was to confirm understanding of shale reserves outside or whether the company intended to drill horizontally under the park.
Dr Blythe replied in a week later, saying the seismic survey operations were to “expand on available geological information in some of the area covered by PEDLs in which INEOS has an interest.”
“At this stage it is not possible to confirm where there are likely to be suitable formations – which would be assessed following the survey works. Following this understanding, the potential for reserves to be accessed, including surface land constraints would be addressed.”
Dr Blythe said INEOS would continue to discuss the timescale and process with the authority.
“Strong resistance to fracking”
The authority’s Director of Conservation, David Shaw, wrote to Dr Blythe just before Christmas last year, expressing “our concern” about shale gas exploration and the authority’s “strong resistance” to hydraulic fracturing in the National Park.
Mr France told Unearthed the National Park Authority was unhappy about INEOS exploration plans in the North York Moors and it was working to see what it could to dissuade the company.
INEOS gave the following statement:
“Ineos will of course follow due process whilst carrying out any statutory obligations, and will continue to consult closely with both the local authority and local communities on any works that we plan to undertake. If we do decide to do survey work it is a non-intrusive process which will have no impact upon the natural beauty of the park.
“Moving forward we will continue to engage with the park authority. We are committed to shale gas and believe it can bring transformative benefits to the local and wider UK economies and UK industr
Andy Wilson, Chief Executive of the North York Moors National Park made a statement about fracking:
“The North York Moors National Park is a specially-protected place for good reason. As the guardians of this magnificent landscape, its habitats, wildlife and tranquillity, the Authority – along with the Government – remain firmly against fracking for shale gas in the National Park. We need to consider the area’s long-term interests.
“The environment of the North York Moors, which includes everything from the dark skies at night to the unique geology and landforms, clean air and fresh water, matters greatly to both the National Park Authority and to the public as a whole. We have recently met with INEOS, the company which informed us of plans to explore shale gas reserves in the area in 2018. We made it clear that we did not wish them to proceed with these plans. The company indicated its intentions to proceed nevertheless and would not deny that it might ultimately seek to frack for shale gas from the National Park by drilling laterally from outside it. We are now determining our next steps and as part of this process will be in contact with National Government. We also expect to have further contact the company.”