Why fracking approvals are seen as positive signal for shale gas

The communities secretary's decision to back exploratory works at two sites in Lancashire has been hailed as a major boost for the shale gas industry, but environmental campaigners are scrutinising the outcome for loopholes.

Fracking: Lancashire plans strongly opposed by green groups
Fracking: Lancashire plans strongly opposed by green groups

Communities secretary Sajid Javid’s approval of three of the four planning appeals for hydraulic fracturing in Lancashire last week is "very significant" and provides a positive framework for the shale gas industry, practitioners have said. The comments follow Javid’s keenly awaited decision last week on operator Cuadrilla’s two proposals for hydraulic fracturing operations – better known as "fracking" – in the Fylde area of Lancashire, between Preston and Blackpool.

Javid allowed exploratory drilling on land near the village of Little Plumpton and said he is minded to approve exploration at a second site at Roseacre Wood, subject to resolution of highways safety concerns. Seismic monitoring operations were approved over a four-kilometre radius around both sites.

According to the Lancashire County Council planners’ report on the applications, the objective of the works is to explore and analyse the shale gas reservoirs known to be present in the Bowland Shale rock formation and to investigate the future economic viability of shale gas extraction at each site. If the trials are found to be successful, the report says, further planning applications would be expected to follow for future full-scale production works. 

Approving the applications, Javid said he gave "great weight" to the national need for shale gas exploration. He said that the schemes could help the UK move towards a low-carbon future and more secure energy supplies.

In reaching his decision, Javid followed the recommendations of planning inspector Wendy McKay’s 500-page report in concluding that adverse impacts of the three proposals would be reduced "to an acceptable level", including all potential impacts on health and wellbeing and risks of induced seismicity. Concerns over the impact on water and air quality were also judged to be unfounded, with the inspector stating that it "could be assumed the regulatory regimes would operate effectively to control such emissions". To address some of the other potential impacts, a wide range of conditions was imposed, including limits to hours of working and maximum noise levels.

When the applications were submitted to the county council in 2014, they generated more than 18,000 local objections, with public concern over fracking focusing on issues such as pollution, contribution to climate change, groundwater contamination and seismological impact. While acknowledging these concerns, McKay’s report said the expressed fear and anxiety "could not be regarded as being reasonably engendered or a justifiable emotional response to the projects in the light of the level of monitoring and controls that would be imposed". McKay advised that the hazards associated with potential exposure to air and water pollutants would be "strictly controlled" by the Environment Agency through the permitting system.

Matthew Sheppard, planning director and head of environmental impact assessment at consultants Turley, said Javid’s determination is "very important" for the shale gas industry. "This decision is very significant because it gets us off the starting blocks," he said. While the applications had involved an appraisal of "the kind of issues that all planning applications come up against, such as traffic impacts", Sheppard said there was nothing in the decisions to indicate that shale gas exploration cannot be carried out safely in the UK.

Nevertheless, he cautioned that future applications would still need to be assessed on their own merits and that each location could have its own characteristics, such as varying geology. "Every site will need to be properly tested all the way through," he said. "But at a high level, if you apply certain techniques then you are likely to get through."

Claire Dutch, planning partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, described Javid’s analysis of the planning issues as "clear and thorough". "He has concluded that concerns over public health, visual amenity and environmental issues can be overcome by planning conditions or other regulatory regimes in this instance, and has therefore attributed little negative weight to these factors." Dutch also noted that Javid had attributed "great weight" to the national need for shale gas exploration. "The decision is a really strong message to other developers coming forward," she said. "Environmental factors may trip you up but by and large they can be dealt with by planning conditions."

Javid’s verdict has "set a positive framework for future decisions," agreed Duncan Field, head of planning at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. "These appeal decisions will carry a great deal of weight when future proposals for hydraulic fracturing are considered in the planning system," Field said. "There will still be significant hurdles to overcome, but developers will be encouraged by the positive and robust way in which the government has dealt with some of the issues which have driven local political and public opposition in the past."

But campaigners such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) have reacted with dismay to the approvals, and said they will be "looking closely" at the decisions. FoE was particularly scathing about Javid’s suggestion that how fracking relates to last year’s Paris Agreement on Climate Change is a matter for future national policy, not for planning inquiries. "This is as flawed as it is concerning," said FoE planning adviser Naomi Luhde-Thompson. "Every decision matters on climate change and this is an abdication of responsibility."

With a judicial review into the recent permission granted by North Yorkshire County Council to operator Third Energy for fracking at Kirby Misperton, near Pickering, set to be heard on 22 November, experts believe it is also likely that campaigners will aim to mount a legal challenge to the Lancashire permissions. "I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a challenge, but whether or not it is successful is another matter," said Dutch. "The decision seems to be watertight."

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