Notts campaigners are hoping a late entry of evidence may save Misson villagers from coming shale gas development.
Campaigners in Misson hope they may yet save the village town from eventual fracking after a planning application is delayed by a dramatic ‘late entry’ of evidence.
IGas Energy’s application ‘to develop a hydrocarbon wellsite and drill up to two exploratory hydrocarbon wells’ represents the first of such plans in Nottinghamshire, and campaigners say granting it would ‘pave the way’ for fracking in the future.
A strong theme of the meeting was that councillors were told they couldn’t consider arguments about fracking in general, but only on the merits of the individual application for exploration.
The precedent was frustrating for anti-fracking opponents who were running out of ammunition against the application in isolation after two important environmental consultees, Natural England and the Environment Agency, both withdraw their objections on the basis of a list of conditions.
But in a dramatic twist to the day-long planning committee meeting at Nottingham County Council, the arrival of a late entry into evidence halted debate and has prompted a month’s interval until a decision will be made.
Planning officer Jonathan Smith, who recommended approval, said: “The proposed development would have a temporary effect on the SSSI. However Natural England found these impacts would not affect the overall integrity. On this basis they have not opposed the proposed development.”
But Coun Sue Saddington said: “A temporary problem could be quite severe. I can’t hand on heart say that the SSSI will be protected.”
Brian Davey, a freelance economist representing Frack Free Notts argued that his concerns over the unsustainability of fracking in general could be applied to the exploration licence specifically.
He said: “Unconventional oil and gas works are particularly expensive to work. Academic literature reveals real risks of harm to the environment and natural health.
“I do not see how you can talk about sustainable development if you only look at the first stage of it without discussing where it is going.”
The threat of continued reliance on fossil fuels would push back the agreed date for lowering CO2 emissions at the Paris Climate Conference in December, Mr Davey added: “”It is not possible to develop any more fossil fuel resources without breaching what was agreed at Paris.
“When you make a decision like this you are setting a precedent, That precedent would send millions of people in the future, your grandchildren’s generation, to early graves.”
Councillors are told to consider the report only on the basis of mineral exploration, not actual shale fracking - but Coun Alan Sissons questions this.
He said: “This application has got nothing to do with fracking, we are told, however the application itself makes reference to mineral extraction. I didn’t think this had anything to do with mineral extraction.”
And anti-fracking campaigner Jeanie Thompson told councillors they did have the power to stop plans in their tracks.
She said: “National planning policy framework says a great weight should be given to the benefits of mineral extraction. There is a bias in the officer’s report that use that great weight argument to override your own policies – of biodiversity, geodiversity, flooding. Your own local policies can override these (government) policies.
She also slammed the company after hearing of their stringent regulation, saying: “Why is it, if they are so good at regulation, we have photographs of a screwdriver in place of a safety pin - a rubber glove in place of a screw cap.”
Coun Stan Heptinstall raised concerns over vast quantities of water used in the process, and known impacts at the Yanchep national park in Australia, but concluded: “When I make a decision today it won’t be on fracking in principle. It will be on the two things - the location, and the control of the potential environmental consequences of the activity.”
IGas presented their plans to the council, placing a strong emphasis on dispelling ‘misinformation’ and outlining the rigorous regulation which doesn’t allow the stories that have plagued fracking companies in the US and Australia – including reports of methane leakage in the US and health problems associated with gas flares in Australia.
Chief Operating Officer John Blaymires said: “The fears that Councillor Heptinstall has raised are born out of misinformation.
“We have, 24/7, someone looking over our back fence as to what we are doing.
“We are under more scrutiny than virtually any other industry, perhaps due to some inflammatory remarks in headlines that are unfortunately not always based on facts. The consequence is that we are held to account every day, 24/7.”
He later pleaded with the council: “It takes time to build that trust. I’m not arrogant enough for you to expect you give us that trust unequivocally.”
Chairman John Wilksonson said in response this was an ‘elliptical’ argument: “It’s as if you’re a burglar asking us to leave the back door open for you,” he remarked rhetorically. He then said: “I’m not suggesting you’re a burglar.”
But the company also faced questions of their finances – IGas reported losses of £25.2m in the first half of 2016, and having sold swathes of bonds to an unnamed benefactor.
“The ability of the Group to operate as a going concern is dependent upon the continued availability of future cash flows and the bonds not becoming repayable earlier than their stated maturity date,” said their September statement.
This week marks an important time for fracking nationally – a major application for two wells in Lancashire was up for government review - and, the day after the Misson meeting communities secretary Sajid Javid upheld appeals by Cuadrilla against Lancashire County Council. This could mean the legal environment when Misson comes back to committee in November may be very different.
Friends of the Earth hope for ‘covenant’ trump card
The last minute entry which halted the meeting is a letter from solicitors of Friends of the Earth and seen by this newspaper. It claims the council would be granting permission for ‘illegal acts’ by allowing drilling close proximity to the Misson Training Ground nature reserve, known as the rocket site - a rare area of fen-land home with unique natural value.
The organisation said: “IGas have failed to give the confirmation sought by our clients in relation to activity at the site. Accordingly the Council continues to face the prospect of granting planning permission to IGas to commit unlawful acts.
Their covenant prevents the carrying out of “noisy, noxious, or offensive trade or business or for any purpose which may be or become a nuisance, damage or annoyance” to the site.
The organisation had previously written to the company suggesting exploration on the site would constitute ‘illegal activities’s as it breaches a restrictive covenant placed on the SSSI by its owners, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.
They said the covenant: “is enforceable by our clients in respect of activities there which may constitute a nuisance.”
Chair John Wilkinson said: “The reason for the adjournment is to allow committee to receive definitive legal advice on matters raised in this late representation.”
Responses to meetings
Janice Bradley of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust gave her thoughts on the meeting: “The impression has been given that they don’t have any concerns about the application when in reality they only withdrawn their objections subject to a number of conditions which require monitoring the SSSI and they’ve also not said there would be no impact - they said there would be a temporary impact and there is likely to be a permanent effect.”
Ruth Hayhurst is a blogger who travels the whole country keeping a tab on fracking news. She said: “Some of them get approved some get turned down. Last year two plan applications by Cuadrilla were turned down, one on noise and traffic grounds, the other on impact to the visual environment. The government called that in so that decision is expected either today or tomorrow.”
On Misson’s chances she said: “I think it’s difficult to tell. There’s been some good arguments this morning. UK Oil & Gas have got government policy behind them, which gives great weight to the exploration for minerals.”
IGas said in a statement after the meeting: “IGas Energy PLC one of the leading producers of hydrocarbons onshore Britain, notes that Nottinghamshire County Council has deferred its decision on the IGas planning application for exploration at Springs Road in order to consider a late legal representation. The meeting is now expected to reconvene on 15 November 2016.”