Guest post: Cheshire campaigners win “major and decisive fracking battle”

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Opponents of IGas’s well test plans outside Chester Town Hall, 15 January 2019. Photo: Frack Free Dee

With the government announcement last week to postpone its decision on plans at IGas’s Ellesmere Port site in Cheshire, a member of Frack Free Upton reflects on, and celebrates, the local campaign against the onshore gas industry.

“Delay as long as possible”

I was late into the movement and the Upton by Chester camp was well established. Those early days for me were noted by the calm engagement of many people in Cheshire, working in their own ways to defeat the unconventional gas industry.

Clearly there were many movers, but Lucy and James stood out as giants for their ability to build and focus the movement. Sadly, they paid a heavy price for their long hours and commitment, as did others not mentioned here by name. Also of note were a group of canny residents living near the Upton well which became a national focus for the anti-fracking movement with people from all around the UK moving to live at the Upton camp.

At that time, wells had been drilled at Ellesmere Port, Ince, Sealand, Kinnerton and Farndon. Planning permission had been granted for a further six wells around Chester, and the area was very much the focus of the gas industry keen to exploit the “Blacon Basin” of shale underneath Chester. Ineos had taken a major share in the licences and had agreed to bankroll IGas in its efforts effort to develop Cheshire into a gas field.

When IGas placed a planning application for development of the Ellesmere Port well, a small number of us met with Naomi Luhde-Thompson, from Friends of the Earth, to work out a strategy to oppose the application. At the end of the evening we had a plan for a campaign, with a strategy of “delay a long a possible” and little hope of winning. Many long hours of campaigning and leaflet delivering took place leading up to the Cheshire West and Chester Council Planning Meeting in January 2018.

The Planning Meeting was astounding. We went into it with no idea which direction any of the Councillors would take. Councillors who had been completely pro-fracking did major U-turns on the evening. We were astounded with a unanimous vote of rejection. IGas duly contested the decision and we went to Inquiry. The first leg of our strategy to delay had succeeded.

“Daunting inquiry”

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Sessions of the public inquiry into IGas plans for Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, 23 January 2019. Photo: DrillOrDrop

The inquiry was a huge learning experience. Many thanks to Barbara Richardson from Roseacre, in Lancashire, for her sage support and direction. We were lucky to get many witnesses at the top of their game, and Estelle Dehon, one of the best barristers in the field to defend our case.

The inspector came from a background of waste management, used to disposing of huge volumes of toxic waste. In the beginning, he seemed baffled at the fuss over injecting a hundred tons or so of dilute acid a couple of kilometres beneath the surface. But as the inquiry progressed, he started to ask the right questions and we gained hope.

The inquiry was a daunting experience, facing a full legal team from IGas, supported by a bank of industry experts.

The initial expectation was that the inquiry would run for two weeks, but it ran for four weeks in total. It was followed by many written submissions in the months after the Inquiry as new evidence came to light.

Perhaps the best moment of the inquiry for us was when the IGas barrister – who had spent a couple of hours in his summing up based entirely that the application was in line with Government policy and could not be refused – sat down to be met by a chorus of mobile phones announcing that the government policy had been found unlawful by the High Court! Thank you Talk Fracking.

“We achieved more than we thought possible”

The Secretary of State “recovered” the application in autumn 2019 to make the decision himself.

On 8 April 2020, he announced that he would not be able to make the decision in the foreseeable future.

On 9 April 2020, IGas announced a doubling of losses from £20m in 2018 to £50m in 2019, of which £2.5m has previously been attributed to the Ellesmere Port Inquiry. Also, in the announcement was news that the company had lost interest in developing north west England in the near future.

We could not have hoped for a better result, we had delayed the application by an additional fifteen months and cost the industry dear in the pocket.

Whilst no final decision has been made on the Ellesmere Port well, over three short years we have gone from three active sites, and planning permission for an additional six sites surrounding Chester, to the only current application being kicked into the long grass awaiting decision and IGas in serious retreat.

The war is not won and PEDL licences remain, we are now at the point that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels and fracking unlikely to take off in the UK. The war in Cheshire is not over but a major and decisive battle has been won for the time being.

Looking back, we have achieved far more than we thought possible in Cheshire. To everyone who has contributed to this momentous success, both locally and nationally, reflect and celebrate, regenerate and enjoy the blossoms of Spring.

Let us return to fight future battles with the courage of experience. We are now stronger and better equipped to stop our county from being turned into a gas factory.

  • DrillOrDrop invited IGas to comment on the delay to the Ellesmere Port decision.

This content was originally published here.

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