The would-be shale gas company, Aurora Energy Resources, has withdrawn its planning application to frack near Formby in Lancashire.
A statement from the company said:
“Aurora Energy Resources has today withdrawn its planning application for two shale gas wells at Altcar Moss, West Lancashire. The application was originally submitted to Lancashire County Council in July 2019, but the council failed to make a determination within the agreed statutory 16-week timescale.”
The county council told DrillOrDrop this evening:
“We note the applicant has withdrawn the application.”
The company blamed a “de facto ban on shale gas activity” for its decision to drop the proposal.
Aurora’s planning application was the first in the UK for fracking since Cuadrilla caused a series of small earthquakes following fracks at Preston New Road near Blackpool in 2018.
The plans were submitted more than four months before the government introduced a moratorium on fracking in England in November 2019.
Lancashire County Council’s development control committee had been expected to make a decision on the proposal next month (August 2020) or in September 2020.
But Ian Roche, the company’s managing director, said council officers had “felt unable to determine this application”.
He said this was “perhaps unsurprising”, referring to remarks made last month (June 2020) by the energy minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, who said “for now fracking is over” and the government had “moved on.”
Mr Roche told the paper it was clear that the government considered the “’moratorium’ on hydraulic fracturing to be a de facto ban on shale gas activity in the UK.” He said it was “out of line” with the regulation of other industries. He would “address this issue” with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Ten days ago, the Aurora’s planning consultant was defending the application against allegations of “a number of misleading or erroneous statements”.
Since the plans were first proposed, they have provoked opposition and criticism from a wide range of organisations, including government and council advisers. Three parish councils, West Lancashire Borough Council, campaign groups and individuals have also objected.
Lancashire County Council asked Aurora for more information on some aspects of the application.
Earlier this month, a consultant to the county council recommended that the application should not be approved because “insufficient evidence has been provided to support the conclusion of no likely significant effects” on protected wildlife.
Also this month, the government’s adviser, Natural England, said more information was needed from Aurora on wildlife impacts. The organisation said:
“Without this information, Natural England may need to object to the proposal”.
Opponents of the application have welcomed the withdrawal of the application.
The local MP, Rosie Cooper, said:
“It will be a huge relief to residents that Aurora have finally taken the decision to withdraw their application to frack in Altcar Moss within my constituency.
“As long as that application was in place, it was clear that fracking companies were relying on lobbying government to overturn the moratorium despite there being no evidence that fracking can be undertaken safely.
“Hopefully this is the final step in protecting West Lancashire residents from the risks that were evidenced in the reoccurring seismic activity at the Preston New Road fracking site.”
The Moss Alliance, a network of campaign groups, said:
“Officers at Lancashire County Council cannot make a decision when the applicant has consistently refused to respond in any intelligent way to Regulation 25 requests to provide further data/reports/information to statutory consultees.
“The only decision they could make would be to refuse the application, due to the recalcitrant and arrogant attitude of the applicant. The Moss Alliance has spent many thousands of pounds of crowd-funded money and grants to oppose this application. The reasons to object are catalogued by our planning experts and are not limited to Aurora’s excuse of the “de facto ban on shale gas activity”.
“Aurora very much need to look inwards not outwards for their failures. Public opposition to fracking is at an all-time high and any support is diminishing daily. They, like their counterparts in the US have found, need to be also keeping up with the economics.
“We have been unable to reach LCC’s planning officer to confirm that the application is being withdrawn. However, we suspect it may raise its ugly head in an amended form in the future. We are not relaxing our opposition: we are in this for the long haul.”
Frack Free Lancashire said:
“We are obviously pleased that Aurora have now withdrawn their application for Altcar Moss. Local residents will be very happy to have the threat of this inappropriate development removed.
“We note that Aurora’s Mr Roche seems to believe that there is no scientific or public policy justification for the moratorium. We would respectfully suggest to him that the earthquakes experienced by local residents in 2019 provide a sound basis for any scientific or public policy justification required.
“He also claims that it is an example of ‘asymmetric regulation’, as though this would justify a challenge to the moratorium. We assume he is referring to the earthquake risk from geothermal drilling. Leaving aside the fact that recorded quakes from geothermal in the UK have never exceeded a magnitude one-eighth as great as the 2.9 ML quake caused by Cuadrilla last year, then the solution is to tighten regulation for geothermal projects rather than to give carte blanche to these opportunists to damage local residents’ property.”
The local county councillor, David O’Toole, said:
“On behalf of the people most affected, in Downholland, Haskayne and Great Altcar, I am very relieved if they have withdrawn their application.”
Aurora announced its plans for Altcar Moss in January 2018.
It submitted an application in June 2019 to drill and frack two wells on farmland near the village of Great Altcar.
Among the recent responses to the application, the Environment Agency (EA) said there were “a number of misleading or erroneous statements” in material from the Zetland Group.
The EA said it had it had not agreed a conceptual model of the Altcar Moss site and its comment about contamination pathways referred to the Preston New Road site and may not apply to Altcar Moss.
The Zetland Group claimed incorrectly, the EA said, that groundwater in the target formation was exempt from regulations. A diagram in the application of the borehole was an oversimplification and another showed two significant limestone units where hydraulic fracturing would not be acceptable, the EA said. The agent also claimed incorrectly that water resources were not a planning issue, the EA added.
Natural England called for more information to justify Aurora’s conclusion that its proposal would have no “likely significant effect” on important wildlife sites. The application could have potential significant effects on designated sites on the Sefton Coast, Ribble and Alt Estuaries Martin Mere, Liverpool Bay and Downholland Moss, Natural England said.
The county council’s ecology advisor, Jacobs, recommended on 2 July 2020:
“Lancashire County Council should not consent this project on the basis that insufficient evidence has been provided to support the conclusion of no Likely Significant Effects (LSE) presented in the Shadow Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) Screening report.”
Jacobs said Aurora had not updated a wildlife assessment to include a revised wintering bird report or addressed concerns raised by the council or Natural England.
There was a feasible pathway, Jacobs said, for potentially significant effects on areas used by over-wintering birds during construction, operation and restoration.
In February 2020, in a separate report, Jacobs described Aurora’s assessment of earthquake risk at Altcar Moss as “superficial, outdated and not justified”. It “strongly recommended” that Aurora update its application to take account of new seismicity information from Preston New Road.