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Fracking the Forest?

With the Government taking the decision on fracking away from Lancashire County Council on 6th October 2016, this brief review of our position and the possibility of hydraulic fracturing in this region could be of use.

The NFA support the position of the Campaign For National Parks, that fracking in or under our National Parks has significant environmental impacts – polluting groundwater, damaging the landscape and ruining tranquility, and is inappropriate for the setting.  While we’ve been given to understand that the New Forest’s geology would not be attractive to fracking, we do not want to see this for any of our National Parks or other protected areas. Additionally the precedent it establishes for putting supposed infrastructure demands over these designations is truly chilling. 33 years ago an application by Shell UK to drill for oil and gas in Denny Inclosure was seen off, a battle we shouldn’t have to fight all over again.

Last year, when the Government was in the midst of its U-Turn on a promise not to license fracking in National Parks (eventually arriving at the position that they would allow drilling from just outside National Parks to go under them), Durham University published an article ranking the Parks likelihood for hydraulic fracturing.

New Forest National Park: (Geology: http://bit.ly/1zPvEi0)
A relatively young geology and the rocks close to the surface have no shale gas, shale oil, or coal bed methane potential. Oil and gas have been found in rocks beneath areas close to the New Forest, and there has been exploration in the national park, but there is no evidence of any oil- or gas-bearing shales that would be of interest to fracking companies.

The Briefing Note puts the Forest in its middle Amber (fracking unlikely) category (along with Brecon Beacons, Exmoor, and Northumberland).  It listed four national parks as Red (fracking possible): North York Moors, Peak District, South Downs, and Yorkshire Dales (rocks of possible interest to companies looking to frack for shale gas, shale oil, or coalbed methane).

Whilst researching other goings on at the Verderers Court, this item from 2014 popped up that suggests that fracking could come closer to the Forest than we had supposed:

2014/
7364
HAMPSHIRE MINERALS & WASTE – OIL AND GAS DEVELOPMENT – REPORT ON MEETING ON 5TH JUNE 2014

Mrs Westerhoff attended the meeting on behalf of the Court. The discussion centred around fracking. Two areas have been identified as potential sites, one being The Weald (as far west as Winchester) and the other is in Dorset reaching east to Thorney Hill adjacent to the New Forest. Whilst the New Forest could be fracked in the future, Mrs Westerhoff understood it would only happen under exceptional circumstances and would be subject to the European legislation protecting the SAC.

–Verderers Minutes June 2014
DISCHARGE

With the unknown shape of the Brexit plan, the reassurance of protection from the SAC (Special Area of Conservation, a European designation), is under threat unless those protections are formally and thoroughly back-stopped in UK legislation and policy.

The most recent Hampshire Minerals and Waste Plan was adopted in 2013, before the more recent changes in policy and legislation. Subsequently, December 2015 they updated the On-shore Oil & Gas FAQs  (60 pages) and in February 2016 the Hampshire Authorities adopted the Oil and gas development Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) (90 pages).  From the FAQ:

Oil and gas exploration in National Parks

There are known oil and gas resources within Hampshire’s two National Parks and exploration already takes place within the South Downs National Park. There are other examples nationally of where oil and gas development takes place within designated areas. This includes western Europe’s largest oilfield at Wytch Farm, Dorset and sites in Surrey all of which are located within designated areas for nature conservation. The potential impact of a proposal on designations will be taken into account in detail at the planning application stage. The Government has recently announced new planning guidance on unconventional oil and gas development in areas of designation such as National Parks, AONBs and heritage sites (see question 23). There are also policies in the adopted Hampshire Minerals & Waste Plan in relation to minerals developments in designated areas (including Policy 4: Protection of the designated landscape) which will be used to guide whether planning permission should be given in such locations.

In December 2015, there was a vote in the House of Commons regarding hydraulic fracturing in National Parks. MPs voted in favour of allowing hydraulic fracturing to take place 1,200 metres below National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, as long as the drilling (and associated infrastructure) takes place from outside the designated areas.

There are no licences in the New Forest National Park administrative area.

The Weald in the South Downs National Park is a target for fracking, and would be a potential testbed for the 1200 metre rule.  In September 2016 their Authority rejected a plan for horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing.  The applicant believes “this proposal would be supported by the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State in the event of an appeal.”  Given that the British Geological Survey (BGS) estimate 2.2 and 8.6 billion barrels of shale oil beneath the Weald Basin, that appeal could be in with a chance as that may be deemed nationally significant.  We may need to lend our support to our neighbours should this go forward.

The “Reverse the decision to allowing fracking under our national parks.” parliament petition closed on June 19th 2016, with just 38,732 signatures, not enough to be granted a debate(>100k), but enough (>10k) to trigger a Government response, which includes these provisos about protected areas that leave us feeling much less protected:

The protected areas in which hydraulic fracturing will be prohibited have been set out through the Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations, which were formally approved by both Houses of Parliament in December 2015. These regulations ensure that the process of hydraulic fracturing cannot take place above 1200 metres in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), World Heritage Sites and areas that are most vulnerable to groundwater pollution.

Rather than enabling operations in protected areas, these regulations introduce an additional protection to our most sensitive areas and complement the strong protections already provided by the planning system. Moreover, it is worth emphasising that the regulations do not in themselves grant any form of permission for “associated hydraulic fracturing” to take place under any of these sites. They simply establish the principle that hydraulic fracturing should be prohibited by legislation in the specified areas and down to the specified depth. A company looking to develop shale will still need to obtain all the necessary permissions, like planning and environmental permits – and any proposals will necessarily be subject to further detailed consideration and scrutiny under our legal and regulatory regimes.

Orwellian newspeak at its finest “an additional protection to our most sensitive areas”, these sensitive areas would not need additional protection, if they weren’t under threat from this activity in the first place.  They should simply be removed from the equation entirely.  Putting an arbitrary depth of 1200 metres also ignores the fact that those 1200 metres (and the water table) will be drilled through to get to that level, that hole, however well engineered will be connected to the area into which fracking fluid will be pumped at high pressure.  What could possibly go wrong?  Fracking was temporarily suspended in 2011 after earthquakes were caused near Blackpool.

In the 16th December 2015 vote on the Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2015 — Extension of Prohibition of Shale Gas Extraction, New Forest East MP Dr. Julian Lewis spoke against the regulation publicly, but abstained from the vote. New Forest West MP Desmond Swayne voted with the Government to allow fracking under National Parks. This is all the more troubling as the west of the Forest is in closest proximity to proposed sites, as noted by David Harrison, Lib Dem councillor, member of the New Forest National Park Authority, “I imagine the west of New Forest will be mainly affected.”

The NFA discussed fracking issues at the November 2015 Council meeting, and although it is unlikely that the Forest’s geology would attract fracking per se, we’re completely against this approach both in principle, and the possibility that it would open the door to similar exploitation. These fights are perennial and ongoing.

The protections offered to designated landscapes and habitats, National Parks and SSSI, et.al. must  be honoured and remain meaningful.

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