If the UK government’s moratorium on fracking is lifted in the future, shale gas companies are likely to face an extra challenge in North Yorkshire.
A proposal to protect residents from the effects of fracking sites has been supported by a government-appointed inspector.
Elizabeth Ord has been examining future planning policy for North Yorkshire, the North York Moors National Park and the city of York, which will shape decisions until 2030.
The authorities wanted to include a policy of 500m buffer zones around homes to protect residents from noise, light spill, visual intrusion and emissions of oil and gas sites.
In a series of public sessions, the shale gas industry said buffer zones were unnecessary and unjustified. The proposed policy would “sterilise” areas for their operations, amounting to a ban on fracking, it said.
It threatened legal action and said buffer zones would exclude all but 20% of available land in North Yorkshire for its operations.
But in a recent note, Mrs Ord gave the policy her support. She said:
“Due to the uncertainties arising from the scientific evidence, particularly over methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing, and the consequential uncertainties over the potential impact this could have on air quality in the vicinity of nearby receptors, I am content that the retention of the 500m buffer zone in the Plan is sound.
“My full reasoning will be set out in my final report following public consultation and consideration of representations on the proposed main modifications.”
Her note is dated October, before the government’s recent moratorium on fracking following earth tremors caused by Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site in Lancashire.
It came despite a ministerial statement last year warning councils not to restrict shale gas developments.
Large parts of North Yorkshire are covered by licences for shale gas exploration and production.
In autumn 2017, Third Energy said it was ready to frack its existing well at Kirby Misperton in Ryedale. But the company did not get final consent because of government concerns about its financial viability.
The North Yorkshire draft policy currently says hydrocarbon development would be permitted where it would not “give rise to unacceptable impact on local communities or public health”.
But it adds that proposals for oil and gas, particularly fracking, within 500 m of homes and what are described as “other sensitive receptors” were unlikely to comply with this policy and would be permitted only in exceptional circumstances.
The final version of the North Yorkshire minerals and waste plan has yet to be published.
Mrs Ord’s decision has been cautiously welcomed by local campaigners and community groups. The shale gas industry has not commented to DrillOrDrop.
David Davis, of Frack Free Ryedale, said:
“FFR welcomes Mrs Ord’s statement which makes it clear that there are many known risks relating to fracking, where as yet the science is at best uncertain.
“It is clear that the inspector is following what evidence there is in arriving at her statement that concludes the 500m buffer zone is sound in the context of the plan under examination.
“The Government have in their pro-fracking ministerial statements promised communities the best environmental protections.
“This seems at odds with reality when considering the British Geological Survey comments after their air monitoring programme at Kirby Misperton, a rural village in Ryedale. The BGS air monitoring report stated that the air quality had been turned into that of an urban area similar to Bootham (a location in central York). This was merely from delivering and setting up [fracking] equipment on site.
“FFR consider the level of emissions (as well as many other factors) mean that fracking should not be allowed to take place.
“The seismicity issues that have yet again occurred in Lancashire (and brought about a second moratorium on fracking) confirm that the nature of this industry is much more of an experiment than the public are being told.
“It begs the question ‘How many moratoriums do we need before this new industry is banned?’”
Christopher Stratton, chairman of South Hambleton Shale Gas Advisory Group, said:
“A welcome decision. But we receive it with caution for it does not prohibit drilling within 500m, only being requirement for the additional test of ‘No adverse impact’ within the buffer zones.
“As the technology now allows horizontal drilling for several kilometres horizontally, this is not a significant constraint for the industry despite claims by the industry body, UK Oil & Gas at the examination in public.
“We and other community groups fought very hard for this buffer zone, as the burden of proof for damage to property rests with the householder. This is wrong and we say should be reversed in PEDL areas where the drilling/extraction companies should be required to prove that they did not cause damage.”
Ryedale district councillor, Paul Andrews, said:
“I think this is great news. It means that residents will get protection if the moratorium is lifted.
“We have had a long and hard fight to defend residential amenity through presenting the residents’ case at the public examination of the North Yorkshire Minerals Plan.
“I believe we have achieved a fair compromise. If the industry does decide to frack, they will not be able to set up the grids of drill pads which they say is necessary for the viability of their operations. The inspectors’ conclusion puts the interests of residents ahead of those of the industry – which is only right.”
Kit Bennett, of Frack Free United said,
“We are glad to hear that the planning inspector has decided that the 500m buffer zone is sound.
“This is good news for those at risk of air pollution from shale gas development. It’s important that the issue of air pollution is taken seriously in the planning system.
“This buffer zone is an important step towards protecting the clean air we all need from polluting shale gas development.”
Mike Potter, a member of Ryedale District Council, said:
“This is a key victory for campaigners, hard argued and hard won. It would not have happened without strong representation at the Minerals and Waste Joint Plan examination in public.
“Everyone else should be using this decision to lobby their Mineral Planning Authorities hard. The time to do so is right now, while the Tories (hugely less that watertight) moratorium is in place.”
Retired GP Dr Tim Thornton described Mrs Ord’s statement as “a very encouraging announcement.”
He said there had been calls for fracking to be at even greater distance away from homes while the impacts were uncertain.
“With the benefit of close monitoring and assessment of the health and other impacts on the people nearby, it may be possible to reduce the setback distances over time. If fracking proved to be without risk then it could be moved closer to school and homes. Built into the Minerals and Waste Joint Plan is a review period which would enable such adjustments to be made.”
Dr Thornton added:
“There was considerable pressure from the industry to avoid sterilising their assets and depriving them of the ability to drill.
“With the huge areas licenced for fracking there would be little difficulty in finding a dozen or more places for the Industry to drill and test their engineering ability as well as the prospects for gas recovery.
“This would satisfy common sense and the precautionary principle. Why this approach was resisted remains a mystery.”
Third Energy said it would not comment on the inspector’s statement. Ineos Upstream and UK Onshore Oil and Gas, did not respond to our invitation.