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Fracking in Wiltshire - the facts

October 15, 2015 12:51 PM

The government is considering the granting of fracking licenses for four areas. These are the Ordnance Survey 10km grid squares ST84, ST85, ST94 and ST95. Together they form a 20km square with its corners at Westwood, Potterne, Codford and Horningsham. Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster are within the area.

During August and September 2015 there was a consultation on the proposals. This was not about the suitability of fracking itself, but about the impact it could have on designated landscape and wildlife sites. Local Authorities and other agencies were invited to comment on a Habitats Regulations Assessment carried out for the government by Amec Foster Wheeler Environment and Infrastructure UK Ltd. For the purposes of the consultation a 10km impact area around the four squares was also considered. This included Bath, Melksham, Devizes, Mere and Frome.

Wiltshire Council responded by suggesting that the HRA was inadequate because it didn't take enough account of the harm which would be caused by exploration and development of fracking wells. In particular the council pointed out the current problems caused by water abstraction in the Wylye and Hampshire Avon valleys. The council also claimed there were no suitable gas resources anyway so licenses should not be proceeded with.

However even if the council's case were accepted by the government this would still leave areas where drilling could take place. Even if 100% of a block is excluded for surface activity it would be possible to access deposits by diagonal drilling from neighbouring areas. The council's oft-repeated statement that the local geology is not suitable is also suspect. Somebody must think it is or the licenses would not have been applied for. WC is relying on an assessment of the Wealden basin, which does not extend to West Wiltshire. The Jurassic shales are the most likely potential source in West Wilts and are present at no great depth.

The case in favour.

Exploiting onshore gas would make the UK less reliant on insecure imports. There would be benefits to the national economy comparable to those from North Sea oil, as well as to local economies where fracking takes place. There would also be direct financial contributions to local communities. Although it's a fossil fuel, gas causes less atmospheric warming than coal, which it could replace in power generation. Higher standards of environmental protection in comparison with the USA will make sure the industry doesn't pollute the air or the ground or the water supplies, as well as ensuring it doesn't cause earthquakes.

The case against.

Fracking in Wiltshire would be disruptive and would change the nature of the areas where it took place. The countryside would be industrialised and on the roads heavy traffic would increase. Aquifers could be contaminated as could surface water and the atmosphere. Farmland could be permanently damaged. Burning of fossil fuels contributes to global warming. Encouragement of the renewable power industry should make fracking unnecessary.

Next steps.

The government has made it clear it fully supports fracking and expects planning permissions to be granted without much delay. Little notice is to be taken of local opinion. Following the closure of the HRA consultation applications could arrive quite soon. Initially there would be seismic exploration followed by drilling of exploration and production wells.

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Here's a couple of questions I put to WC planners along with their answers:

1. Is Wiltshire Council engaged in any pre-application discussions concerning fracking in West Wiltshire?
Response - Wiltshire Council is not engaged in any pre-application discussions concerning planning applications for hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') in Wiltshire. The Government's planning practice guidance advises that developers/operators will engage in pre-application discussion with local communities, the Council and statutory consultees after the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has issued any Petroleum and Exploration and Development Licence (PEDL). No licences have to date been issued for Wiltshire.
2. Taking into account government 'advice' and the WC scheme of delegation, has consideration been given to how any such applications would be decided?
Response - Any planning application for hydraulic fracturing is classified by the government as a planning application for minerals extraction. All applications for mineral extraction that are called to committee are assigned by the Council's Scheme of Delegation specific to Planning to the Strategic Planning Committee for determination. The Secretary of State has the general power to direct that any particular planning application should be called in for determination by the Secretary of State.

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Here's a statement from WC from the time of the HRA consultation:

The 'Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round - Consultation on proposed assessment', was published earlier this month. The full consultation can be accessed via: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/habitats-regulations-assessments-of-14th-onshore-oil-and-gas-licensing-round

From the bidding round undertaken last year, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) received 95 license applications to explore for onshore oil and gas covering 295 'blocks' in England, Scotland and Wales, of which 159 blocks remain for further consideration - 4 of these relate to Wiltshire.

This information has been made available as part of a consultation by the Oil & Gas Authority (Executive Agency of DECC) published on 18 August 2015. The consultation focuses on whether the Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) undertaken on these sites is reasonable and not whether these areas should be subject to hydrocarbon (oil and gas) exploration or extraction.

Wiltshire Council will respond to the consultation before the deadline on 29 September 2015.

Background

On 28 July 2014, DECC opened the 14th round for companies seeking licenses to explore for onshore oil and gas, with the round closing on the 28th October 2014.

Since 1 April 2015, the oil and gas licensing system is administered by the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA), an executive agency of DECC, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change who has power under the Petroleum Act 1998 to grant licenses.

Licenses are granted in ordnance survey blocks for a specified period of time, giving exclusive rights to the licensee.

The licenses do not in their own right grant planning permission: that is the role of Wiltshire Council, as mineral planning authority.

Consultation

The consultation on the 'Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round - Consultation on proposed assessment' commenced on 18 August 2015 and ends at 11.45pm on 29th September 2015.

In order to satisfy the requirements of the Habitats Regulations, analysis and assessment is required of "any plan or project" that is likely to have a significant effect on a European site(s) (e.g. Bath and Bradford-on-Avon Bats Special Area of Conservation, Salisbury Plain Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation, Pewsey Downs Special Area of Conservation, River Avon Special Area of Conservation); and if so a further detailed assessment undertaken ("appropriate assessment") to determine whether it will adversely affect the integrity of the European site(s) concerned. The consultation is on the findings of the appropriate assessment and the approach.

In presenting the HRA, the consultation provides an early indication of the possible outcome of the bidding round for Wiltshire, as referred to above. It identifies four blocks in Wiltshire - Blocks ST84, ST85, ST94 and ST95.

The consultation document explains that a review of 295 blocks has been undertaken and reduced to 159 blocks, including the four in Wiltshire, for further consideration following a review of: "geotechnical analysis, scrutiny of the operator competency, financial viability, capacity and environmental awareness and the decision not to award licenses in Scotland and Wales." The detail behind the review has not been made available.

Two general questions are asked in the consultation:

Q1. Do you have any comments on the Habitats Regulations Assessment carried out for the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round?

Q2. Do you have any comments on the assessments carried out for individual license Blocks? (You may wish to comment on more than one Block.) Please provide the reference for the Block you are commenting on (e.g. SD26a).

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What happens next? Here's an outline of the procedure:

The licences for fracking, which allow companies to search for and obtain the Crown's resources are not granted by the council, but by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). These licences, alongside planning permission, must be granted prior to the company undertaking any testing to see whether oil or gas reserves are available.

After the initial licence has been granted by DECC, the company must then come to the local authority for planning permission for exploration. Following this, the company must also obtain 'well consent' from DECC, and undertake further checks. To move beyond the exploration stage into production, planning permission must again be granted, alongside further requirements.

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A WC response to a question from Chris Caswill at the council meeting on July 29 2014 implied the county was relatively safe from fracking. This now appears overly complacent:

"The Council has not seen any evidence to indicate that the geology in Wiltshire is compatible with unconventional gas and oil extraction. The lack of developer interest would suggest that the potential for unconventional gas and oil extraction in Wiltshire is low.
Should planning applications for the various stages of fracking proposals be submitted, they will be considered in the light of the national planning policy framework (NPPF) and local development plan, which will enable impacts on the water environment and road infrastructure to be considered.
In terms of national policy, the NPPF requires planning authorities to assess applications for all minerals developments, including conventional / unconventional hydrocarbon developments, to ensure that operations do not have unacceptable adverse impacts. In doing so, planning authorities are also advised to take into account the cumulative effects of multiple impacts from individual sites and/or a number of sites in a locality.
Planning applications for each stage must be subject to consultation with the local community and relevant statutory consultation bodies - such as the Environment and Highways Agencies before the local planning authority can make a decision.
Consideration will be given to the impacts on the water environment as well as road infrastructure during the exploration and implementation phase of planning applications.
Shale gas wells, whether for exploration or production, are subject to the environmental impact assessment regime established by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive. The EIA Directive is transposed into English law through the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011. Under the Regulations, all deep drilling operations, including shale gas wells, will be screened by the local planning authority to assess whether they are likely to have any significant effects on the environment including water and transportation matters. Where significant effects are identified, an environmental statement will need to be submitted to the relevant planning authority before the planning application is consulted on and considered."