Scottish government proposes to re-open public inquiry into Ineos coal gas plans

Airth sites

Location of proposed coal bed methane sites around Airth in central Sctland. Source: Planning application

Scottish government officials are suggesting that an inquiry into drilling for coal bed methane that closed six years ago should re-open.

The government’s planning and environmental appeals division (DPEA) has said the inquiry should consider how changes in policy and Brexit would affect the plans by Ineos near Falkirk.

The investigative website, The Ferret, reported earlier this month that Ineos was seeking to resurrect the plan around Airth to extract methane from coal seams.

Airth location and designations

The proposed coal bed methane sites around Airth sites and designated areas. Source: planning application

The proposal, originally from Dart Energy, dates back to 2011.

It comprised 14 new sites, 22 new wells, a waste outfall, about 20km of pipeline and a gas processing facility. It attracted local, national and international opposition.

A public inquiry, held in 2014, heard from more than 50 witnesses. Ministers called in the decision. But it was delayed by a consultation on the Scottish government’s  stand on coal bed methane and fracking.

In October 2019, the energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, announced a policy of ‘no support’ for unconventional oil and gas, including fracking for shale gas and extraction of coal bed methane.

Despite this, a lawyer for Ineos, Sandy Telfer, wrote to the DPEA in November 2019, arguing that the ‘no-support’ policy did not mean that the coal bed methane application had to be refused.

He said:

“[the ‘no-support’ policy] cannot be taken as meaning that the Scottish ministers will dismiss every onshore unconventional oil or gas development application that comes before them, regardless of its individual merits.”

He asked:

“Is the new policy intended to override every other relevant material consideration, including scientific evidence, no matter how compelling?”

He said any potential pollution problems, including climate change impacts from drilling, flaring or venting, would be dealt by the pollution control process. If evidence showed that emissions could be dealt with satisfactorily, he asked whether ministers would “set their policy of ‘no support’ aside and grant the applicant planning permission?”

Aerial view of Airth

Aerial view of the area around Airth. Source: Planning application

The DPEA has now told Mr Telfer and opponents of the scheme that government planning reporters (the equivalent of planning inspectors in England) think the inquiry should be reopened.

An email dated 21 February, published online, said there had been changes since the 2011 inquiry in international, national and local policy. This included declarations by the UK and Scottish governments of a climate emergency and the Scottish government’s expression of no support for unconventional oil and gas. There could also be implications from the UK’s departure from the EU for binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions that the UK signed up to.

The email said:

“The reporters’ preliminary view is that this subject area would best be handled in a re-opened inquiry session”.

The reporters called for written submissions on whether there should be a new statement on the impacts of the proposals on the environment.

They also asked for arguments on whether there should be an assessment of the effects on wildlife and habitats in the Firth of Forth special protection area.

Opponents and supporters have until 20 March 2020 to send their views to the DPEA.

The reporters will then issue formal notices on further deadlines and the reopened hearing.

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