Cuadrilla decision: Much more than drilling for gas

07 October 2016

Cuadrilla has won approval to start fracking at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire after a two year delay, but Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy, writes that the company has a long way to go in order to acquire a social license of acceptance in the local community.

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday announced the decision on Cuadrilla's appeal against the negative planning decisions handed down by Lancashire County Council back in June 2015.

The decision is to approve drilling at the Preston New Road site subject to conditions, while a decision on a second site at Roseacre Wood has been delayed.

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This decision has taken over two years to reach. Much of the delay was due to Cuadrilla constantly providing additional information to makes its case. The planning appeal that lasted five weeks back in February and March this year had to digest thousands of pages of information.

Fracking protests in London
Image courtesy David Holt:Flickr
Not for shale: Protests in London around fracking

Mr Javid's predecessor, Greg Clark, had called in the final decision, reflecting the importance that the current Government in London attaches to this issue. After the hearing, a Planning Inspectorate report was sent to the Department for Communities and Local Government on July 4, with a decision required within three months.

This is the latest episode in Cuadrilla's troubled history of trying to develop Lancashire's shale gas potential.  Back in April 2011 their drilling activities at its Preece Hall site triggered earth tremors, resulting in a moratorium while the Government devised a ‘traffic light' system to monitor and manage so called ‘induced seismicity' that might be associated with shale gas drilling.

A battle is now under way

The current applications at Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road involve drilling and monitoring up to four wells at each site and will involve horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Thus the approval at the Preston New Road site potentially represents a step change for the shale gas industry in England. However, the local communities in the region are vehemently against shale gas development and may seek a judicial review.

These are not the only drilling sites that are currently attracting the attention of anti-shale gas campaigns. Back in May Third Energy was granted planning approval to drill at an already existing well at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire.

This decision is now subject to a potential judicial review brought by the local anti-shale gas organisation Frack Free Ryedale and Friends of the Earth, who maintain that the County Council did not take sufficient account of the impact of the activity on the UK's climate change policy. The case will be heard in late November.

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A third decision is also in limbo as Nottinghamshire County Council suspended discussions of a planning application from IGas to drill at the Mission Training Area in Bassetlaw. The reason being a covenant unearthed by Friends of the Earth that prohibits noisy or disruptive activities that would impact on the nearby Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The County Council decided to seek legal advice on the status of the covenant and have adjourned their meeting until 15th November 2016.

All of this activity highlights the battle that is being fought at the local level as local planning officers and county councillors find themselves caught in the crossfire of a national government determined to promote shale gas development and local communities and environmental groups just as determined to stop shale gas exploration.

North-south divides

However the so-called shale gas debate is about a lot more than drilling, it highlights many fault lines in wider society.

It is not without reason that I write about a potential shale industry in England: at present it is not possible to obtain planning permission to drill for shale gas in in either Wales or Northern Ireland as both devolved Governments have announced that they will not support approvals. In Scotland there is a very high profile moratorium in place while additional evidence is gathered.

The arrival last week of the first shipment of ethane for the INEOS-owned refinery at Grangemouth added fuel to the fire as the ship arrived emblazoned with banner along its hull ‘Shale Gas for Manufacturing'. These ethane shipments are compensating for a fall in natural gas liquids production from the North Sea, but INEOS sees the long-term solution as domestic shale gas production and is investing in drilling licenses in England and would like to drill in Scotland.

Within England itself the debate over shale gas development has been couched in terms of the North-South divide; whereby it is not considered appropriate to drill for oil in the South, but it is to drill for shale gas in the North. This perception was reinforced by Lord Howell's intervention in the House of Lords about drilling in the desolate North.

There is also a growing urban-rural divide in relation to shale gas, but also onshore wind and large-scale solar. These are all things that take place disproportionately in rural areas, who face the brunt of the negative environmental, social and economic impacts. Anti-shale gas organisations in these regions argue that shale gas development is not in keeping with the rural landscape and is tantamount to the industrialisation of the countryside.

Fake fracking site set up in London as a protest
Image courtesy David Holt: Flickr
Social license: Cuadrilla needs to engage the community more according to Professor Bradshaw

It is because of these issues, and many others, that the question of shale gas is not about the local impacts of drilling activity. It's about climate change, it's about energy policy and it's about sustainable development.

But the immediate and obvious reaction of the local communities is to claim that the decision made by a minister in London is anti-democratic. After all, the initial decisions were made by elected councillors and there is proof that the majority in the local community do not support development. Yes, there are organisations and individuals in the community in favour of development, but they seem to be in the minority.

The scale of the local opposition reflects a failure by Cuadrilla to engage effectively with the local community and make their case.  It is also a failure by the national Government in London to explain why shale gas development is in the national interest.

Political support - but no social licence

So what happens next? Notwithstanding the possibility of a judicial review, Cuadrilla - subject to conditions - now has the necessary permits and planning approvals to move ahead with its drilling programme at Preston New Road; thus one could say it has a regulatory licence to operate.

The industry more generally has a political license from the National Government in London, but Cuadrilla does not have such support from local government in Lancashire. Equally, what it does not have is a social licence to operate that can be conceived of as ongoing acceptance or approval from the local community and other stakeholders.

That said, the harsh reality is that the social license has no standing in the regulatory regime that governs shale gas development in the UK. As one industry observer noted at a shale gas conference: "A social license may the hardest one to obtain, but it's the only one that you don't need."

We must now wait and see what happens in Lancashire, but it seems unlikely that the local community will simply accept the judgement made in London. In a statement, the Preston New Road Action Group said "This is not the end. We will challenge this."

This is just the beginning - not the end. These current licences are all the from 13th round issued in 2008. But a whole new round of 93 licences over 159 blocks was issued in the 14th round in December 2015, 73% relating to unconventional oil or gas. Each block will, if it goes to commercial development, require numerous wells to exploit.

As a result hundreds of rural communities will find themselves caught up in the shale gas controversy. If they perceive their quality of life as being under threat from fracking, many more of them are certain to resist by whatever avenues are available. The shale gas industry may just find it does need that elusive social licence, after all.

This article originally featured on The Ecologist, read the full article here.

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