The Sun reported (5/8/22) that a “huge fracking site” in Nottinghamshire had been ordered to be shut by “meddling councillors” because “it might upset owls – which flew off years ago”. The following day, LBC stated that permission for the Misson Springs site had been “revoked” partly “over fears about breeding long-eared owls”.
Both articles quoted unnamed wildlife experts that the owls had left the area in 2018. The Sun said the site operator, IGas, had “agreed to strict rules to keep birds safe” and “agreed with planning officers” to work at the site until November 2023. But, the article said, planners were overruled by councillors, who said the site “must shut within weeks”.
Misson Springs is not a fracking site.
It was granted planning permission in 2015 for two shale gas exploration wells – but not for fracking. The planning permission expired in November 2020. IGas drilled one of the wells.
To frack at Misson Springs, IGas would need a separate planning permission, an environmental permit, an approved hydraulic fracturing plan and hydraulic fracturing consent.
Councillors were not “meddling”. The planning committee, with a majority of Conservative councillors, considered a planning application by IGas, made in December 2020, to extend the life of the Misson shale gas exploration site for three years.
Permission was not revoked. The committee voted in July 2021 to refuse IGas’s application to extend the life of the site until November 2023.
Reasons for refusal
The reasons for refusal, given in the decision document, did not mention breeding long-eared owls.
They focussed on “an unacceptable length of time” of the proposed extension. During this time, the decision document said, the site would continue to “adversely impact the amenity of the local community and the sensitive local environment”. This was contrary to two planning policies, the council said.
IGas had six months in which to appeal but announced in October 2021 that it would not challenge the refusal.
“Owls flew off years ago”
The owls did not leave the site in 2018.
Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, which manages the Misson Carr nature reserve, near the Misson Springs site, has confirmed that long eared owls bred this year.
In 2018, however, they did nest further away from noise from drilling at the shale gas site in 2018.
The closest part of the Misson Springs site is 125m from the nature reserve, . The reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), an area with a high level of UK wildlife protection. It is an offence to recklessly disturb wildlife on a SSSI.
NWT told councillors that surveys in 2018 showed the long-eared owls on the SSSI had moved further east from their habitual breeding locations, away from the drill site.
“Strict rules to keep birds safe”
The original planning permission for shale gas exploration set conditions for protection of birds on the SSSI.
These included no site construction work during the bird nesting season (1 February-31 August).
This gave IGas a window of nearly 22 weeks to complete site construction, seven more weeks than the company said it needed.
But IGas did not begin site construction work until 20 November 2017, losing 10 of the available weeks. The work overran and IGas failed to complete site construction by the start of the bird nesting season in February 2018. It then had to apply for permission to work during the nesting season, which the council approved.
The conditions also required IGas to provide environmental monitoring data on the SSSI. But IGas failed to abide by this rule.
NWT told the council in 2021:
“During the construction of the wellsite in 2018 and the duration of drilling, the Applicant [IGas] failed to provide complete and comprehensive data on noise, air quality and water flows and quality, despite being required to do so under the planning conditions.”
When drilling was underway, the noise barrier faced the western end of the site, away from the most sensitive area, the SSSI. The rig was also not fully enclosed, despite the recommendation from the council’s noise engineer in 2016.
The campaign group, Frack Free Misson, has suggested that IGas deployed greater noise protection for a cottage, partly screened by an industrial unit and further from the rig, than for the nearer nesting area, formerly used by long-eared owls.
The group transposed noise modelling for fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site to Misson Springs. If IGas had applied to frack at Misson, the group suggests that the modelled noise levels at the SSSI would be above the statutory limit of 42dB. This could have meant IGas would not get permission for fracking.
Shutting well “within weeks”
The councillors did not require the well to be shut “within weeks”.
The formal refusal of the extension application was dated 3 August 2021. But at the time of writing, more than a year later, the well has not been plugged and abandoned.
Planners recommended approval of IGas’s application for three more years at Misson.
But 12 councillors voted against granting planning permission, with one abstention and none in support.
Councillors can, and do, vote against the advice of planning officers. They should be ready to explain why they have not accepted the recommendation.
Frack Free Misson told DrillOrDrop the articles by The Sun and LBC had been inaccurate by stating that the owls were absent. The group also said:
“The articles wrongly imply the fracking industry has suffered some form of injustice.
“In reality, IGas’ failure to complete the scheduled works within the original timescales and protect the SSSI as required leaves serious questions to be asked regarding the company’s competence.
“That the fracking lobby resorts to such inaccurate ‘journalism’ to sway the public mood demonstrates how ill-founded their case is, and to what depths the industry’s cohorts will stoop in order to justify its ongoing existence.”
Updated 17/8/22 with confirmation that the long eared owls bred in 2022.
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