Landmark North Yorkshire fracking approval leaves green groups up in arms

Shale development company Third Energy has been given the go-ahead by North Yorkshire County Council to hydraulically fracture an existing well near the village of Kirby Misperton - a decision labelled as "bitterly disappointing" and "an absolute travesty" by campaign groups and environmentalists.

The Council’s planning committee has this evening (23 May) voted seven for, four against for approval of the application, allowing Third Energy to test out the process at the well over an eight-week period, fracturing it in five different places to gauge its productivity.

This is the first time an application for fracking in the UK has been given council approval since a ban was lifted in 2012.

Third Energy chief executive Rasik Valand said: “This approval, is not as a victory, but is a huge responsibility.  We will have to deliver on our commitment, made to the committee and to the people of Ryedale, to undertake this operation safely and without impacting on the local environment.

Commenting on the announcement, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said: “This decision has been made by the local council. We’re very clear that fracking is a fantastic opportunity. It’s good for jobs, the economy and strengthens our energy security. 

“We already have tough regulation in place to ensure that fracking is safe. We are now looking forward to the safe exploration of shale gas beginning and finding out just how much of this home grown energy supply is available to power our homes and businesses.”

“This isn’t over”

But within minutes of this victory for the highly controversial fracking industry, green groups and environmentalists slammed the decision, with Friends of the Earth’s Yorkshire and Humber campaigner Simon Bowens labelling it “an absolute travesty”. 

“But the battle is very far from over,” Bowens said. “Despite this decision, public support for fracking is plummeting as Wales, Scotland and countries across Europe have suspended it. The risks to people’s health and the environment are unacceptable and we will fight on.” 

Greenpeace’s head of energy campaigns Daisy Sands added: “Given the pro fracking bias from central Government, there was an air of inevitability about this bitterly disappointing decision.

“It is striking that the overwhelming number of speakers giving evidence at the two-day hearing were against fracking and Ryedale Parish Council voted against fracking at its back door, but North Yorkshire Council has overlooked this and the many, many concerns that were raised locally.

“But this isn’t over and people will continue to raise their very valid concerns and keep fighting against fracking because it will industrialise the beautiful Yorkshire countryside and contribute to climate change.”

Open question

The fracking industry has faced significant challenges in getting projects off the ground, with many having been blocked by councils. Opponents claim that the drilling technique – which sees liquid pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture rock and release gas – can contaminate water, cause earthquakes and exacerbate noise and traffic pollution.

Environmentalists also warn that this pursuit of new sources of gas – a fossil fuel – goes against efforts to tackle climate change, and that the Government should instead focus on a transition to renewable energy.

Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said: “As we see from protests outside the Council today and from opinion surveys, the public is not supportive, and the economics remain unclear – so whether commercial fracking ever goes ahead is still an open question.

“Other issues also remain open. Last year, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee said fracking is incompatible with our climate change targets, and the Government hasn’t been able to show they’re wrong. If leakage rates are above a few percent, gas burning turns out to be worse than coal for climate change, and yet the government hasn’t set a maximum permissible leakage level.

“Lastly, there’s the fact that the UK won’t own the gas – it’ll belong to the company extracting it, who will presumably sell it into the European market, at market rates. So whether it would really do anything for energy security or for bills is very much open to question.”

Shale appeals

No fracking has taken place in the UK since 2011, when tests on the Fylde coast were found to have been the probable cause of minor earthquakes in the area. But the Conservative Government has remained a staunch supporter of shale gas exploration, underlined by Prime Minister David Cameron’s now-famous pledge to go “all out for shale”. Last year, the Government confirmed new measures to fast-track applications.

As well as Third Energy’s application to frack its existing KM8 well, two other shale exploration firms have fracking applications under review in the UK.

Cuadrilla has two applications under appeal. Civil servants have warned that the appeal process could take “at least 16 months”, and last November the Government announced that the appeals would be determined by communities secretary Greg Clark.

Meanwhile, IGas has applied for planning permission to monitor groundwater and drill exploratory shale gas wells across four locations near Springs Road in Nottinghamshire. Also under review is a separate scoping request for a site at Tinker Lane near Blyth in Nottinghamshire.

The Government has assured it will keep the regulatory regime for shale gas “under review” for when the industry develops, as set out on the shale gas task force’s 2015 report.

Luke Nicholls

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