Government seeks views on proposals to bypass local council control of shale gas schemes – DRILL OR DROP?

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Cuadrilla’s shale gas site at Preston New Road, 18 July 2018. Photo: Danny Vc Llew

Two consultations opened this afternoon on government proposals to fast-track decisions on shale gas developments in England.

One proposal is to allow shale gas exploration projects to go-ahead without the need for a planning application. The government wants to make non-fracking projects permitted development. This is system currently in place for small house extensions, installation of garden sheds and change of use of offices.

The other proposal is to classify major shale gas production developments as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects. This would take them out of local authority control and give decisions to the Local Government Secretary.

The proposals were included in the last Conservative Party manifesto and announced in a joint written ministerial statement on 17 May 2018.

They have been welcomed by the onshore oil and gas industry but opposed by environmental groups. (See Reaction for details). An online petition, organised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England against the permitted development proposals had more than 148,000 signatures at the time of writing.

The consultations are open to the public as well as the industry and interested parties. They run for 14 weeks until 25 October 2018.

Permitted development

Details

The government said in the consultation document that it wanted to speed-up decisions on shale gas exploration, which it described as “disappointingly slow”.

“The government remains fully committed to making planning decisions faster and fairer for all those affected by new development, and to ensure that local communities are fully involved in planning decisions that affect them. These are long standing principles. No one benefits from the uncertainty caused by delay.”

The permitted development system would, the government said, provide “a simpler, more certain route to encourage development and speed up the planning system, and reduce the burden on developers and local planning authorities by removing the need for planning applications”.

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IGas site at Springs Road, Misson, 21 March 2018. Photo: Eric Walton

So far, there have been approvals for shale gas exploration sites at: Preston New Road, near Blackpool (Cuadrilla), Springs Road and Tinker Lane, both in Nottinghamshire (IGas), and Harthill in South Yorkshire (Ineos). Another Ineos proposal at Marsh Lane in Derbyshire and Cuadrilla’s Roseacre Wood scheme are waiting the outcome of public inquiries. Third Energy has permission for fracking, though not in shale formations, at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire.

Of these sites, the ones in Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire and Derbyshire would be covered by the permitted development proposals.

The government said the proposals would not apply to hydraulic fracturing plans – so sites at Preston New Road and Kirby Misperton (and Roseacre Wood if approved) would not be covered by the change.

According to the consultation, the proposals would also not apply to non-shale gas onshore oil and gas exploration operations or to shale gas sites in protected areas, including National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, World Heritage Sites and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The Green Belt is not included in the list.

The government listed conditions that could be applied to the permitted development rights for shale gas sites. These included agreements on site restoration and limits on the height of structures or the duration of the operation.

The consultation also said conditions could include local authority approval for issues such as contamination, air quality, noise impacts, visual impacts and effects on roads – a key consideration in several shale gas public inquiries. Conditions “could include an element of public consultation”, the document suggested.

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IGas site at Tinker Lane, north Nottinghamshire, 12 May 2018. Photo: Eric Walton

Reaction – opposition

Daniel Carey-Dawes, senior infrastructure campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said:

“It’s as if the government doesn’t realise the scale of the opposition. If they press ahead with these proposals, the protests, outrage and anger from local people across the country will undoubtedly intensify.

“These proposals would be a complete perversion of the planning system and trample over the rights of local communities – all to fast-track an industry bringing environmental risks that would massively outweigh any suggested ‘benefit’ to our energy security.”

Rose Dickinson, Friends of the Earth campaigner said:

“Fracking companies cannot be allowed to drill at will; without the need to apply for planning permission and precious little involvement from the local community.

“It’s absurd that planning rules originally designed for minor home improvements, like putting up a garden shed, could now be used for major drilling infrastructure.

“Our countryside and our climate are at serious risk if the government pushes ahead with these plans. We need to be moving away from fossil fuels, not make it easier for companies to dig up more.”

The campaign group, Frack Free United, said:

“This consultation is probably the most important issue for the anti-fracking movement this summer.

It represents a clear and present danger to the UK’ ability to meet its climate change targets. It drives a coach and horses through local democracy for the sake of fossil fuels.”

Reaction – support

Ken Cronin, chief executive of the industry organisation, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said:

“We welcome the consultations launched today, as laid out in May’s Written Ministerial Statement. We will engage fully with the process and shall be submitting a response in due course.

It must be remembered that planning applications for onshore gas developments have gone from taking three months to over a year to assess, leaving communities with uncertainty and councils under-resourced. To ensure that the UK gets the flexible, reliable and secure source of gas it needs, we have to improve those timescales.

“With five separate regulators ensuring we meet our environmental and operational obligations in everything from well design to traffic management, the Government’s plans only seek to ensure that communities, the industry and the nation aren’t left in the dark.”

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Cuadrilla’s shale gas site where fracking – if approved – could start within weeks

Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects

The government is also proposing to include shale gas production schemes in the list of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP). This planning regime covers major energy, transport, water and waste schemes and has be used for the HS2 rail line and the Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

The document for this consultation said:

“This would bring such shale gas production projects in line with other energy projects of national significance such as the development of wind farms and gas fired generation stations.”

Under the NSIP regime, proposals are examined by planning inspectors, often at a public inquiry, and decided by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. There is a prescribed timescale for the examination and decision.

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MP Lee Rowley giving evidence against shale gas proposals at the Marsh Lane public inquiry in Chesterfield, June 2018. Photo: DrillOrDrop

Under the proposals, schemes that met the criteria for NSIP would no longer be decided by local councillors.

The government said:

“There is the opportunity for local authorities, statutory bodies and other interested parties to participate in the examination of an application. Members of the public can also take part in the examination stage if they register as an interested party.”

It also said there would be a requirement to consult local people at the pre-application stage.

The consultation is seeking views on the criteria that should be used to include sites in the NSIP regime. The government has recommended:

  • Number of wells per site
  • Number of well sites within the development
  • Estimated volume of recoverable gas
  • Estimate production rate from the site
  • Connection to the local or national gas distribution grid
  • Associated equipment on site, such as water treatment facilities and micro-generation plants
  • Whether multiple well sites are linked by gas or water pipelines, transport links or communications

What happens next?

The government said the NSIP changes were likely to need an impact assessment and another consultation.

Both sets of changes would be implemented by secondary legislation, it said.

Most secondary legislation uses statutory instruments which usually do not need the approval of parliament. They automatically come into effect unless either MPs or Peers stop them – but this is said to be very rare.

The government also said it would consult in the autumn on whether oil and gas companies should be required to conduct pre-application consultation before shale gas developments.

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