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Agenda Item No

 

The Vale of Glamorgan Council

 

Scrutiny Committee (Economy and Environment): 6th September, 2011

 

Report of the Director of Environmental and Economic Regeneration

 

Potential Impacts of Extraction and Burning of Shale Gas

 

Purpose of the Report

1.             To allow scrutiny to consider the potential impacts of exploration / extraction of shale gas ('fracking') on the Vale of Glamorgan, further to a request for consideration by Councillor Rob Curtis.  That request is attached as Appendix 1 to this report.

Recommendation

1.             That Scrutiny Committee notes the report and the stance adopted to date in respect of fracking.

Reason for the Recommendation

1.             To ensure Members are aware of the background to the 'fracking' process and of the need to request policy guidance or intervention from the Welsh Government in reacting to applications in respect of the exploration or extraction of shale gas reserves within the Vale of Glamorgan.

Background

2.             Current shale-gas extraction uses a technique called hydraulic fracturing, often known as ’fracking’. A well is drilled through the upper strata into the shale bed, generally 1.5-6km below the surface, and a mixture of water and solid particles - often sand, sometimes manmade ceramic beads - is pumped down into the shale at pressures up to 100MPa (145,000psi). This fractures the rock and the solid particles hold the crack open, with gas released for capture.

3.             Throughout the world there have been concerns raised about the possible health risks associated with ‘fracking’, with exploitation of proven shale gas resources elsewhere in the world receiving mixed publicity, with some developments in the USA allegedly having had detrimental effects on water resources. There has also been recent publicity about such exploration in Blackpool, Lancashire and potential links with earth tremors.

4.             One of the key potential hazards identified by opponents is the risk of ground and surface-water contamination by gas and chemicals, based on evidence gathered from the US where tens of thousands of shale gas wells are now thought to exist.

5.             Such concerns over shale gas drilling has led to calls for a moratorium on UK operations. A report by the Energy Select Committee of MPs in June 2011, however, found no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing process involved in shale-gas extraction poses a direct risk to underground water aquifers, provided the drilling well is constructed properly. The Committee Chairman, Tim Yeo, stated "There appears to be nothing inherently dangerous about the process of fracking itself and, as long as the integrity of the well is maintained, shale-gas extraction should be safe" also adding that ’Regulatory agencies must of course be vigilant and monitor drilling closely to ensure that air and water quality is not being affected.’  (Appendix 2)

6.             Nevertheless, there remain objections to the fracking process at an international as well as national and local level, and to the best of your officer's knowledge, there have been no formal applications for 'fracking' in Wales to date, nor have the Welsh Government provided any technical advice in respect of the same.

7.             In February 2011 the Vale of Glamorgan Council received an application from a company known as 'Coastal Oil and Gas Limited' to "drill and test the in situ lower limestone shale and associated strata" (ref. 2011/00115/FUL) in Llandow. The purpose of the application was to allow the company to investigate potential gas resources that may exist in the Carboniferous Lower Limestone Shales and Upper Devonian measures.

8.             Whilst exploratory boreholes such as this are normally permitted development under Part 22 of the Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (as amended), that Part specifically excludes boreholes for petroleum exploration, including hydrocarbon gases, so that planning permission was required for this proposal. The application did not, however, relate to 'fracking', but rather related to exploration to if there was any potential for such viable exploration at the site in future.

9.             In excess of 120 individual letters of objection were received from local residents, as well as objections from Llandow Community Council.  A local campaign group - 'Vale Says No' - was also established. In general terms their objections related to the effects of traffic, noise, ground water pollution, chemical pollution, and the potential for this proposal to lead to further drilling. The application was also subject to extensive local press coverage, following a concerted local opposition campaign.

10.        Prior to consideration by Members of the Planning Committee, the application was withdrawn given the need to undertake further noise monitoring in respect of the potential impact of the exploration drilling process on a nearby residential property. The Officer's conclusions on the test drilling proposal, however, stated that whilst the potential environmental impacts of gas exploitation would require very careful consideration of any subsequent planning application, it would be unreasonable to refuse to permit this proposal for a single exploratory borehole subject to precautionary conditions to control environmental impacts. In this respect it was made clear that the proposal was not for 'fracking', which (if conditions found such commercial exploitation to be possible) would need to be the subject of detailed environmental impact assessment through a formal planning application.

 

11.        To date, no further application or submissions have been made by the applicant or any other related company for test drilling in this or any other area within the Vale of Glamorgan, although a new application is anticipated in the future.

12.        In response to local concerns, the Leader has previously written to The First Minister to request that consideration is given to whether all such applications relating to test drilling and "fracking" itself should be matters for the Welsh Government to determine because of the significant sensitivities around such applications and the perception of potentially significant environmental impacts. This would also enable the process to be appropriately examined at a national level to ensure that the interests of all residents are balanced against the potential benefits of such shale-gas exploration.  The letter is attached at Appendix 3 and also refers to the need for clear guidance and technical advice from the Welsh Government, given the regional significance and cross boundary implications of this issue. At the time of writing, save for an acknowledgement, no response had been received from the First Minister. Subsequent to the Leader writing to the First Minister, he has also issued press statements and appeared on television and radio interviews to call for clear guidance and policy from the Welsh Government (Appendix 4), although at the time of drafting of this report, it does not appear that there has been any reaction from the Welsh Government to such requests.  As a consequence the Leader has again written to the First Minister seeking a response to the issues raised in his previous letter.

Relevant Issues and Options

13.        In the absence of any formal planning application for either exploratory test drilling or 'fracking' itself, it is not possible to examine in detail the implications of any specific proposal on the Vale of Glamorgan.

14.        In the event such an application is received, in addition to the statutory publicity required by the Planning regulations, further contact will be made with the Welsh Government in respect of seeking their intervention.

15.        With reference to Welsh Government Guidance and Policies, the most up to date policy guidance on planning matters is contained within Planning Policy Wales (Edition 4, 2011).  Minerals Planning Policy Wales sets out land use planning policy guidance in relation to mineral extraction and related development in Wales (Minerals Planning Policy Wales 2001).  Further Technical Advice Notes provide guidance on coal extraction and aggregate productions, but as indicated within the body of the report there is no guidance available on Shale gas exploration or fracking, and whilst the Welsh Government can produce Ministerial Interim Minerals Planning Policy Statements none have been issued with reference to fracking.

Resource Implications (Financial and Employment and Climate Change, if appropriate)

16.        There are no resource implications directly resulting from this report, however, in the event of applications for fracking being received, there may well be resource implications arising as a consequence of the need to seek technical assistance on the process and the implications of the process.

Legal Implications (to Include Human Rights Implications)

17.        There are no legal implications resulting from this report.

Crime and Disorder Implications

18.        There are no crime and disorder implications resulting from this report.

Equal Opportunities Implications (to include Welsh Language issues)

19.        There are no equality implications resulting from this report.

Corporate/Service Objectives

The determination of proposals for fracking have clear links with the corporate objectives of environmental improvement and regeneration.

Policy Framework and Budget

20.        This report is a matter within the policy framework.

Consultation (including Ward Member Consultation)

21.        The appropriate Chief Officers have been consulted on this report. This report does not require Ward Member consultation.

Background Papers

Planning Application 2011/00115/FUL

Letter to First Minister from the Leader of the Council

 

Contact Officer

Rob Thomas, Head of Planning and Transportation Tel:  01446 704630

 

Officers Consulted

Director of Environmental and Economic Regeneration

 

Responsible Officer:

Rob Quick, Director of Environmental and Economic Regeneration

 

 

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