Government proposals to take shale gas decisions out of the local planning system could result in a “one-size-fits all” approach with unrestricted drilling and fracking, a new parliamentary group has been told.
The first evidence session of the All Party Group on Shale Gas Impacts heard that a Written Ministerial Statement, issued last month, would undermine attempts to control the industry and address cumulative effects. Transcript of statements to APPG on shale gas impacts (pdf)
The Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) from Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and Local Government Minister, James Brokenshire, proposed to classify non-fracking shale gas schemes as permitted development. This would mean these schemes would be treated like small house extensions and would not need planning permission.
The anti-shale network, Frack Free United, told the meeting at Westminster:
“With the release of the new Written Ministerial Statement on shale gas, there is the threat of a one-size-fits-all approach of unrestricted drilling and fracking in all shale gas areas.”
“The government is pressuring local authorities to permit shale gas planning applications, without giving them the detailed assessment they need.
“The ability of local authorities to control shale gas is being undermined by the WMS.”
The Campaign to Protect Rural England, also giving evidence, told MPs:
“It is neither appropriate, given the scale and significance of impacts caused by exploratory drilling, nor in terms of the precedent of local decision-making, to allow such development to fall within permitted development.”
A CPRE online petition against the permitted development proposals, promoted today, had nearly 94,000 signatures at the time of writing.
How many shale gas wells are needed to reduce imports?
The APPG session focussed on the cumulative effects on landscape, traffic and communities of scaled-up shale gas developments
Friends of the Earth told the hearing the UK would need to drill one new well every day for 15 years to produce enough gas to replace half the country’s gas imports from 2021-2035. The figures were based on central estimates of well productivity in a study commissioned by Friends of the Earth from Professor Calvin Jones, of Cardiff Business School.
Connor Schwartz, for Friends of the Earth, told the meeting:
“In the low productivity scenario, the number of wells required is estimated to rise to 16,550, or 3 new wells per day.”
He said the central estimate would need more than 1,000 wellpads, equivalent to 4,900 football pitches, to meet 50% of UK imports.
In a written submission for Frack Free Ryedale, industry analyst Gundi Royle, said the UK would need 18,000-20,000 wells to produce half of the country’s annual gas consumption. She said:
“The only region in the world which is producing shale gas on that scale is the US.”
The licence regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority, declined to given a estimate:
“The purpose of exploration activity, particularly drilling and testing, is to identify commercially-viable resources of oil and gas. Without such information, which is often specific to a relatively small geographic area, it is not possible to make accurate forecasts of the resulting development activity.
“Consequently, the OGA will not make an assessment of future potential activity for a particular area or for the contribution to the UK energy mix until more is known from exploration.”
“Local efforts undermined by Government”
The draft North Yorkshire Minerals and Waste Joint Plan has proposed 500m setback distances between shale gas sites and homes, as well as buffer zones around protected landscapes.
But Kit Bennett, representing Frack Free United, said:
“The attempts of North Yorkshire Minerals and Waste Joint Plan (MWJP) to address cumulative impact may be undermined by the new Written Ministerial Statement.”
“The planning system is currently actively avoiding proper consideration of the cumulative impacts of shale gas development. This can be seen in the recent Written Ministerial Statement, which places great weight on promoting shale gas, with little consideration of its impacts, and in Planning Practice Guidance, which prevents proper consideration of the whole life cycle impact of oil and gas development when applications for exploratory wells are made.”
Daniel Carey-Dawes, for CPRE, said:
“The spectre of exploration becoming permitted development also has implications in relation to cumulative development as it may then evade policy compliance.”
He said ministers had decided that exploratory drilling did not need an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) when applying for planning permission. But he said European case law suggested that in some cases an EIA would be appropriate because of the likely cumulative impacts of the development. If exploratory drilling did not need to apply for planning permission it could avoid the need for an EIA and assessment of cumulative impacts.
“Salami slicing” phases of development
Frack Free United said the ability to control cumulative impacts was also limited by the requirement in planning guidance to consider separately the phases of exploration, appraisal and production.
Kit Bennett, speaking for the network said:
“This is because the impact of later stages cannot be taken into account at planning applications. This is despite the fact that it is clear the goal of the industry is widespread and intensive development.”
Connor Schwatz, for Friends of the Earth, said:
“The Planning Practice Guidance for minerals divides or “salami slices” fracking into three distinct phases: exploration, appraisal and production. This makes the assessment of cumulative impacts of the different phases difficult from a planning point of view.”
Roseacre Awareness Group (RAG), which opposes Cuadrilla’s application for Roseacre Wood near Blackpool, raised concerns about local development plans:
“Local authority plans do not consider the impacts of full-scale production fracking, and associated infrastructure, or the potential impacts on existing sectors such as agriculture and tourism and their supply chains.”
“Yet fracking threatens to industrialise our countryside (already under threat from housing developments) at a time when green spaces are essential for health, leisure and biodiversity.”
Barbara Richardson, for RAG, said:
“We believe national guidance should look at the wider picture, such as number of sites required nationally, well density, separation distances, buffer zones, waste management storage and treatment, water usage, well integrity, well abandonment, financial viability and other matters of national importance including that of public health.”
Capacity of the planning system
Witnesses were also asked whether current planning policy and practice could support the level of extraction needed for full-scale commercial fracking.
Connor Schwartz, for Friends of the Earth, said:
“There is already national shortage of town planners. Local government faces funding pressures, therefore minerals and local planning authorities struggle to recruit and retain sufficiently qualified, skilled and experienced planning staff.
“The cumulative implications of needing to provide the correct level of planning consideration for the multiple planning stages of each of the over 12,000 wells necessary for self-sufficiency are vast, and not currently within the realms of possibility for current planning practice.”
The Written Ministerial Statement proposed to speed up fracking applications by classifying them as Nationally Significant Infrastructure. This would mean decisions would be made by a government—appointed planning inspector, rather than local authorities.
CPRE said local mineral planning authorities were under-resourced but it said:
“[It would not be right] in terms of the need to ensure local communities are fully involved in planning decisions, to move the locus of decision-making for shale production to the NSIP regime.”
- DrillOrDrop also asked the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas for its statement to the APPG. This post will be updated with any response.