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Last week Lancashire County Council rejected two applications for planning permission for two of England’s first high volume horizontal fracking operations.
The applicant, Cuadrilla, has obtained an environmental permit from the Environment Agency for both sites, and holds a Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence (known as a PEDL) issued by the Government. It cannot commence fracking on either site without planning permissions.
The refusal of planning permissions is an interesting turn of events.
The Government has been much in favour of developing the UK shale gas industry as it looks for alternative forms of energy. In response to the Lancashire County Council decisions, a spokesperson from David Cameron’s office said ‘we will continue to look at how we can develop this industry in the UK.’
The local community has come out very strongly against the proposals
Shale gas has been extracted in this country for many years, and the fracking technique has been used in vertical wells for some time. Fracking is the fracturing of layers of shale rock beneath the surface of the earth to release gases trapped within the rock.
Technology now allows horizontal drilling in many directions from the same vertical well to reach different pockets of shale gas deep underground. It is extracted by injecting very large quantities of water and sand, which fractures the rock and then holds the fracture apart while gas escapes. Typically, horizontal drilling takes place at depths below 2.5km underground, and up to 70% of the injected water, known as ‘fracking fluid’ remains in the Earth after the process has been completed.
There is much debate about whether the fracking process is safe. In America there have been reported cases of gas escaping into water supplies, environmental pollution, and accidents caused by human error and equipment failure. In this country, test fracking in Blackpool in 2011 caused minor earthquakes. The view of Government, the oil and gas industry, and many commentators is that fracking can be carried out safely if it is closely regulated and performed to the highest standards.
Yet while the debate on safety and pollution continues, in these two cases it was the impact that the activity will have on the surrounding areas that lead to a refusal. What’s clear is that fracking does not yet have public acceptance or support in areas where it is proposed to be carried out.
Rural communities close to proposed fracking sites are concerned about the visual effects of fracking, the capacity of the road network, noise and pollution. It will be very interesting to see how other cash strapped local authorities deal with fracking applications, and the level of interest that they generate.
These two cases highlight the conflict between the Governments’ support of unconventional gas extraction and Local Authority planning considerations at proposed fracking sites in rural areas. The Secretary of State can call in a planning application or appeal, for example where it is nationally significant. This allows the Secretary of State to make the decision in place of the Planning Inspectorate. It is likely that Cuadrilla will appeal, although this has not yet been confirmed. It will be interesting to see what happens if it does.
If you would like any advice on any of the above please call Craig on 01274 377283.
Craig Burman is an environmental and regulatory solicitor based at Schofield Sweeney, Leeds and Bradford. He was previously Regional Solicitor at the Environment Agency until March 2015 and is experienced in dealing with a wide range of environmental matters.