A bid to allow gas fields in the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire to operate until 2035 is now likely to be approved after a government ruling.
In a decision released today, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said planning applications to extend the life of eight gas fields did not need detailed environmental investigations.
The ruling has disappointed local campaigners who accuse government of “rubber-stamping” approval of the applications.
Planning permission is now likely to be granted next month – but DrillOrDrop has established that the well sites are no longer producing gas and are unlikely to resume production in the near future.
The only destination for the gas, a 25-year-old power station, stopped operating more than six months ago and has been ordered under pollution regulations to close in just over a year.
In January 2020, North Yorkshire County Council said it was minded to approve the applications for the gas fields. But the decisions could not be finalised because Friends of the Earth had asked the ministry for a screening direction on whether the applications needed environmental impact assessments (EIA).
An EIA would have held up the applications because the resulting environmental statement could take many months to produce.
Under planning rules, the ministry had until yesterday to give its rulings. It concluded:
“the Secretary of State is satisfied with the existing and proposed measures to mitigate the environmental impacts and concludes that these are sufficient to obviate the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said:
“North Yorkshire County Council has agreed to grant planning permission to allow the pipelines and wellsites, supplying gas to the Knapton Generating Station to continue operating until 2035”
“Officials determined that an Environmental Impact Assessment was not necessary in reaching this decision.”
The decision was entirely made by MCHLG officials with no Secretary of State involvement, the spokesperson said.
Climate change argument
Friends of the Earth had argued that the impact of gas production on climate change was a reason for requiring an EIA for all the applications.
But the ministry said no concerns had been raised on climate change by the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England, Historic England or other specialists consulted.
The screening directions said:
“None of these bodies has raised any concerns about the proposal, the applicant proposes a comprehensive schedule of mitigation identified in their Environmental Report and that the Council proposes retention of existing mitigation measures, supplemented a number of new mitigation measures, which will be secured by planning conditions agreed by the determining committee on 21 January 2020.
“Having taken into account all this evidence the Secretary of State has concluded that the proposal would not have a significant adverse impact in terms of climate change.”
“Disappointing rubber stamp”
David Davis, of the local campaign group, Frack Free Ryedale, said:
“It is disappointing that, as one of the main checks and balances of our very complex planning system, the Government’s screening directions have made little detailed comment about these applications and have effectively rubber stamped them through.
“It is clear that our regulators and Government are lagging behind reality in respect of methane emissions and so on. The operator’s network is old fashioned and outdated and, without significant capital expenditure, the operator will find it increasingly difficult to meet environmental emissions targets.”
Suspension of gas sites
North Yorkshire County Council is now expected to bring the application back to its planning committee. The item is on the agenda of a meeting is due on 9 July 2020.
This will extend the duration of planning permission of wellsites at Kirby Misperton, Marishes, Malton and Pickering and the gas pipeline that runs from the sites to the Knapton Generating Station.
An investigation by DrillOrDrop revealed that at the time North Yorkshire County Council said it was minded to approve the planning permissions, Third Energy had already stopped electricity generation at Knapton and suspended gas production at the sites for at least seven weeks.
Third Energy’s managing director, Russell Hoare, told us:
“Yes [the operation of the current plant has ceased]. The LM6000PA gas turbine [at Knapton Generating Station] simply isn’t economic for a variety of reasons, including the age of the plant and also the prohibitive emissions taxes payable on plant of that age and spec.”
He added that the decision to shut down Knapton was made in late 2019. At that time, he said, Third Energy made “several redundancies to reflect the lower level of operations and maintenance staff required”.
Mr Hoare also confirmed the state of production at the well sites:
“No [the fields are not currently producing gas]. The Knapton Generating Station was our only route to market for the gas and so production has been ceased for the time being.”
Monthly data from the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) shows that none of Third Energy’s Ryedale fields recorded any gas production in December 2019 or January 2020 (the most recent figures available).
A technical document from the EA published last month (May 2020), required the power station to stop operating by 17 August 2021.
It also confirmed that the power station had already ceased running and that the operator, Third Energy, had “no plans to commence operations in the near future”.
If Third Energy wanted to operate the power station after 17 August 2021, it must prove that the equipment met updated emissions standards.
Mr Hoare told DrillOrDrop that Third Energy had planned for some time to improve the environmental performance of its operations, including replacement of the turbine.
But asked when this would happen, he said:
“this is yet to be decided and the Covid-19 crisis has obviously delayed any on-site improvements for the time being.
“Once we have decided on the precise specifications of the project, we will then seek the necessary consents but until we have decided upon the precise project, we do not know for certain what consents would be needed.”
Mr Hoare said the halt in operations at the generating station was “not permanent”. He said:
“We are working through various business models for an improved vision of the generating station to better reflect the needs of a changing power market as set out above, but this will be subject to gaining the required permissions and consents.”
Clock starts ticking on Ryedale fields
The timing of any replacement generating station is now very significant for the Ryedale gas fields and their regulation.
A condition proposed by council officers for the planning permissions said the consents would last:
- Until 2035, or
- “within six months of the cessation of electricity generation at Knapton Generating Station” or
- “within six months of the cessation of significant gas production”.
That deadline would be fast approaching if planning permission had been finalised on 21 January 2020.
If, as expected, planning permission is now granted on 19 June 2020, the clock starts ticking on the Ryedale gas fields. Under the proposed condition, the power station must resume electricity generation or the fields must start producing by 19 December 2020.
But, as the company’s statements suggest, this looks unlikely.
David Davis, of Frack Free Ryedale, said:
“Nearly all the operator’s planning permissions in Ryedale have a contingent condition relating to Knapton Generating Station which requires the various sites to be restored if there is no generation of power from Knapton for a period of 6 months or more.
“It has been out of operation since December 2019 so we call for the Mineral Planning Authority to enforce those conditions and for all the sites to be restored to their former land use.”
The OGA production data also raises questions about whether some of the Ryedale well sites could be said to have had significant gas production during 2019.
The total 2019 production at all the sites was 2,661ksm3, with a monthly average of 55.4ksm3. This compares with 6,962ksm3 at IGas’s Albury oil and gas site in Surrey, where the monthly average was 580ksm3.
If you look more closely at the production data, most of the Ryedale sites had minimal output in 2019. Only one – Pickering – produced more than 2,000ksm3 that year.
Malton A and B recorded no gas production in the whole of 2019.
Total 2019 production at Kirby Misperton A and B sites was 198ksm3, with a monthly average of 16.5ksm3.
At the Marishes sites, total 2019 production was 139ksm3. The monthly average was 11.6ksm3, with five months at or below 10ksm3.
Other conclusions of the screening direction
The MHCLG screening direction also concluded:
- The scale of the developments did not justify an EIA
- Extending the lives of the site was unlikely to have “significant environment effects in terms of contamination” of groundwater
- It would not have a potential adverse impact in terms of releasing pollutants or any hazardous, toxic or noxious substances into the air
- There would not be any potential significant impacts on flood risk, ecological and landscape designations, heritage assets or sites of cultural significance.
- There were unlikely to be significant environmental effects on the use of resources
It also said:
- Appropriate measures were in place to mitigate against any potential impact on species and to minimise risks to human health and of accidents
- Existing and proposed mitigation measures supplemented would satisfactorily control noise emissions and avoid any likely effects from traffic generation
- Waste generation would not have a significant adverse impact on the environment
- Proposed restoration conditions would satisfactorily mitigate against potential adverse effects from decommissioning
- There were no significant cumulative effects on the environment
- A new environmental baseline does not justify requirement for an EIA
9 June 2020
Screening direction published on Ryedale well site and pipeline applications
8 May 2020
Environment Agency announces the variation of the environmental permit for the Knapton Generating Station preventing the operation of the station after 17 August 2021. Link
30 April 2020
Varied and consolidated environmental permit issued for Knapton Generating Station. Link
1 April 2020
Third Energy confirms that Knapton Generating Station is not operating. Link
20 February 2020
Legal challenge gets go-ahead to the way the Oil & Gas Authority handled the sale of Third Energy. Link
21 January 2020
North Yorkshire County Council votes that it is minded to approve an extension of planning permissions until 2035 for Third Energy gas sites at Malton, Marishes, Kirby Misperton and Pickering. Link
13 January 2020
Deadline for comments to Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on application to extend the life of Knapton Generating Station and the overhead power line.
OGA figures show there was no production from Malton, Marishes, Kirby Misperton or Pickering well sites in December 2019. Production did not resume in January 2020 (the most recent figures available).
27 November 2019
Third Energy issues notice under the Electricity Act 1989 section 36c that it has applied to the Secretary of State for BEIS to vary the consent to construct and operate an open cycle gas turbine generating station (Knapton Generating Station) and extend the operation until 31 December 2035. Link
8 November 2019
Business secretary considers the variation application on Knapton Generating Station accords with the regulations and can be published. Link
24 October 2019
Business secretary says she is satisfied that emissions from the generating station are “relatively low” and will be controlled by the environmental permit from the Environment Agency. She also says the applications to extend the life of Knapton Generating Station and overhead power line do not need statutory environmental impact assessments. Link
9 August 2018
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy requests screening opinions on extending the life of Knapton Generating Station and on the overhead powerlines. Link
6 July 2018
Friends of the Earth sends a request for screening direction letter to the Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government.
3-14 May 2018
Third Energy applies to vary conditions of planning permissions for Ryedale gasfield and pipeline to extend life until 31 December 2035.
4 May 2018
Third Energy applies to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to extend the life of Knapton Generating Station and the overhead powerlines until 2035. Link
1 May 2018
Environment Agency initates review and variation to vary the permit under Industrial Emissions Directive. Link
Third Energy makes screening request to North Yorkshire County Council and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Source
11 September 2007
Permit issued to Viking UK Gas Limited for operation of Knapton Generating Station
10 November 2006
Ryedale District Council approved a further 10 years of life for Knapton Generating Station until 19 May 2018. Link
Consent granted for Knapton Generating Station
Updated: 10/6/2020 to revise comment from MCHLG at request of officials
Updated: 4/7/2020 to revise date of North Yorkshire County Council planning committee
- A legal action against the Oil & Gas Authority over its handling of the transfer of ownership of Third Energy is due at the High Court in July. DrillOrDrop report
Updated 15/6/2020 to include FOI response from North Yorkshire County Council which said it would be seeking member authorisation to issue the decision notices.