Shale gas, the battle lines are drawn

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In May last year, gas company Third Energy was granted planning permission to drill and carry out hydraulic fracturing at an existing well at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire. The councillors listened to representations from both sides of the argument, aware of the level of attention by the media.

Shale gas protestors wish such decisions to be swayed by the level of local opposition, but the reality is that they must be made within the confines of planning law where the presumption is to allow development and where many of the key issues are the responsibility of national regulators.

Furthermore, the Government considers exploration for shale gas to be in the national interest. Any subsequent commercial development would – in their view – improve the UK’s energy security, attract investment, create jobs and promote the decarbonisation of the energy system. These claims are simply rejected by those who campaign against shale gas development.

Thus, it was no surprise when environmental group Friends of the Earth and the local anti-shale gas group Frack-Free Rydale issued a judicial review claim to overturn the county council’s decision. The case was heard at the High Court in London in November 2016. The review revolved around two issues. The first was the fact that any gas produced at the well would be transported via an existing pipeline and used to generate electricity at the nearby power station at Knapton. It was argued that the impact on climate change had not been properly considered. The second issue related to long-term responsibility for the restoration and aftercare of the site; it was argued that the County Council should have required a financial bond.

On December, the judge made public her decision. While she agreed there were grounds for a review, the substantive claims for the review were rejected and the initial planning decision was upheld. This positive outcome for the shale gas industry followed other decisions taken by the secretary of state for communities and local government, Savjid Javid. But three legal actions are pending against the minister’s decisions that could yet halt progress. These will be heard in Manchester, but no date has been set.

This activity relates to licences granted by the 13th Onshore Licensing Round back in 2008. In December 2015, the Government announced the outcome of the 14th Licensing Round with 159 onshore blocks –incorporated into 93 onshore licences – being formally offered to successful applicants. The Infrastructure Act (2016) has placed additional requirements on licence-holders, but they now wish to begin exploration. New licence-holders such as INEOS-Shale are attracting attention as they have interests across North and South Yorkshire, the East Midlands and Cheshire. In addition to gathering geological information through 2D and 3D imaging technology, they are now also planning to carry out exploration drilling.

Consequently, new anti-shale gas organisations are appearing across the countryside. Their argument is clear; shale gas is not environmentally safe, we should not be developing new fossil fuels, it endangers human health and the negative economic and social impacts outweigh any possible economic benefits. Meanwhile, the government argues that it would be irresponsible not to find out whether shale gas can be commercially developed and the Treasury is consulting on how a future ‘shale gas wealth fund’ might be spent.

As the frontline of the shale gas conflict rolls out across England, local government officials will continue to find themselves caught between a government in Westminster determined to prevail and environmentalists and local communities determined to resist. The result is that there are likely to be more protests and more court hearings as activists seek to test the resolve and finances of the nascent shale gas industry and its backers.

The shale gas industry and its supporters in government may look back at 2016 and think that at last they are making progress; but shale gas activists are determined to drag the developers through the courts and the battle lines are set to extend as new licence holders seek to begin exploration. Inevitably, local government will find itself caught in the middle, unable to satisfy either side of the conflict. The debate is now open.


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