A provisional date has been set for the decision on fracking plans in Lancashire – the first to be considered since the government announced a moratorium last year.
Lancashire County Council has earmarked 27 March 2020 for a special meeting on the application by Aurora Energy Resources at Altcar Moss near Formby.
The company wants to drill and frack up to two wells on farmland near the village of Great Altcar and close to protected wildlife sites. Link to planning application
This will be the first planning application for fracking to be decided in England since the moratorium was imposed in November 2019 because of concerns about earth tremors.
More time for comments
Lancashire County Council has extended a public consultation on extra information provided by Aurora about the scheme.
The information, formally requested by the county council last year, was submitted by the company on 9 December 2019.
But it was not published online by the council until 15 January 2020. A spokesman for Lancashire County Council told DrillOrDrop:
“Due to a technical issue the further information relating to the Aurora Energy application was published on our website five days later than stated in the advertised consultation.
“As a result we are due to extend the consultation period by ten days until 24 February and will be advertising this shortly.”
Friends of the Earth regional campaigner, Estelle Worthington, had called for an extension to the public consultation:
“Lancashire County Council’s delay in getting important additional information about Aurora’s application to frack at Great Altcar shared with the public effectively means local people are in the dark about the impact of these proposals.
“Lancashire County Council has a statutory duty to make sure local residents are fully aware of all aspects of the application and have enough time to make their views known. As such, we think they should re-start the clock and extend the consultation deadline.”
The new information covered issues including rig height, wildlife, earth tremors, noise and air and water quality.
The Moss Alliance, a coalition of groups against Aurora’s scheme, said:
“All the local groups opposed to the planning application are now busily digesting the new information with a view to submitting further objections to the application in due course.
“The local groups are also considering holding further public meetings during the early part of February to brief their supporters and seek their further support in opposing the planning application by responding to Aurora’s newly submitted responses.”
The Moss Alliance has also organised a petition against the development So far, there are about 6,000 paper and online signatures. It is due to be handed in at the decision meeting in March.
DrillOrDrop understands that more than 700 formal objections have been made to the Aurora application.
At the time of writing, the Moss Alliance submission had not been published online. But there are published objections from West Lancashire Borough Council and Sefton Councils, as well as opposition from parish councils at Lydiate, Lathom South, Burscough and Great Altcar.
The extra information from Aurora is a 22-page response to a request from the county’s council planning department for more detail.
Aurora had said the geology of Altcar Moss was similar to Cuadrilla’s sites at Preston New Road and Preese Hall. It said proposed measures would limit earth tremors induced by fracking to 1.5ML.
Fracking at both Preston New Road and Preese Hall had induced earth tremors higher than 1.5ML. A tremor on 26 August 2019 at Preston New Road, measuring 2.9ML, was the largest induced by fracking in the UK and led to suspension of pumping at the site.
Lancashire County Council asked Aurora to update its seismicity risk assessment. Aurora conceded that fracking at Altcar Moss could induce events up to 3.1ML but the assumptions in its risk assessment remained valid. It said the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) was responsible for regulating seismicity and additional information would be provided to the OGA if necessary.
Aurora also said fracking was not envisaged to have any impact on abandoned historic wells in the area. Responsibility for this was with the Health and Safety Executive, it said.
The council had said the proposed rig height of 60m was significantly higher than the 36m rig used at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site near Blackpool.
Aurora said a 60m rig would save about 10% of drilling time. It said a restriction to a 36m rig would “compromise” its ability to “secure a contract with a drilling rig provider on reasonable terms” and could increase costs, representing “an unreasonable” and “disproportionate burden”. Aurora also said a 60m rig would not “have a significant adverse impact on visual amenity or the landscape”.
Aurora had argued in its application that the fracking plans were “appropriate development” in the green belt. The council questioned this interpretation.
Aurora responded that apart from towns and villages, the whole of its exploration licence, PEDL164, was green belt. The company said:
“There is no suitable location for exploration beyond the green belt boundary.
“In order to carry out the obligations and entitlements under PEDL164, the short-term harm caused to the openness and to a single purpose of the green belt must clearly be outweighed by the very special circumstances.”
Aurora had argued in its application that the fracking site would not have a significant effect on neighbouring wildlife sites.
The government’s wildlife adviser, Natural England, said there was insufficient information in the application to come to this conclusion. It also said ecological surveys were incomplete. The key is whether the site is “functionally linked” to the nearby protected Ribble and Alt Estuaries. This is tested by the number of pink footed geese from the estuaries that use the proposed site and surrounding fields.
Aurora accepted that the site was “functionally linked” to the estuaries. But it argued that disturbance of geese by the fracking site would not have a significant effect on either the population of the geese. This meant, Aurora said, there was no need for further ecological investigation.
Natural England had also called for a reassessment of noise from construction, operation and restoration of the fracking site. It argued that a 3db increase in noise could disturb birds and measures may be needed to control noise levels.
Aurora rejected Natural England’s argument as “arbitrary”, “not supported by evidence”, “generic and inappropriate”.
The council said more controls would be needed to reduce night time noise. It said the company’s noise assessment did not seem to consider that during the summer residents may sleep with windows open and would be disturbed by site noise.
“mitigation measures will be finalised once the equipment has been chosen and a noise management plan will be prepared detailing the specific mitigation measures to be installed and their effect on ambient noise levels in the vicinity”.
Air and water quality
On concerns about the impact of the scheme on air and water quality, Aurora said these issues were regulated by the Environment Agency. The company has not yet submitted an application for an environmental permit so there is no detailed information on these issues.
Government guidance on fracking applications
The government confirmed last week that it had made no additional guidance on dealing with fracking planning applications.
The Labour MP, Clive Betts, asked what advice had been issued to local authorities on fracking applications since the moratorium.
The local government minister, Esther McVey, replied:
“Planning authorities should continue to take national planning policy and guidance into account in considering any relevant applications. No additional guidance has been issued.”
She also said that there was no change to the status of planning permissions that had been granted for fracking before the moratorium.
The government had no plans to revoke the moratorium, an energy minister in the House of Lords said.
Lord Duncan of Springbank responded to a question by the Liberal Democrat Lord Greaves:
“The Government has always been clear that we will take a precautionary approach and only support shale gas exploration if it can be done in a safe and sustainable way, and that we will be led by the science on whether this is indeed possible.
“It remains our policy to be guided by the evidence and to minimise disturbance to those living and working nearby to shale gas exploration sites, and to prevent the risk of any damage.
“The moratorium will be maintained unless compelling new evidence is provided which addresses the concerns around the prediction and management of induced seismicity.”