Lawyers for petrochemical firm Ineos are preparing for two landmark public inquiries as the company looks to kick-start shale gas exploration work in the south of the region as soon as possible. Chris Burn reports.
Two flagship planning inquiries to fast-track plans for fracking in the south of the region are to start preliminary hearings within weeks.
Petrochemicals giant Ineos is understood to be the first company involved in the shale gas industry to be granted the right to bypass local councils ruling on planning applications for fracking exploration work in favour of a Government inspector determining the cases.
Public inquiries have been ordered for shale gas exploration work in two Ineos sites less than ten miles apart in Rotherham and north-east Derbyshire. Should the tests on underground wells to determine their suitability for fracking prove successful, it could pave the way for the controversial process – which involves the injection of water and chemicals at high pressure into rocks deep underground to release shale gas – to begin permanently in the region.
Both Rotherham Council and Derbyshire County Council had been due to make decisions on the applications after receiving thousands of objections to the exploration plans from the public – but Ineos asked the Government to intervene on the grounds the council processes were taking too long, and now the Planning Inspectorate is due to hold hearings.
Rother Valley MP Kevin Barron, whose constituency includes the intended Rotherham site, has accused Ineos of “bypassing local democracy” in its use of the new powers.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “The Conservative manifesto was about localism and giving over powers. But now we are not going to have a voice at the beginning of this process.”
The Labour MP added while he was not against the principle of fracking, he does not believe it is suitable in the more urban environment of Rotherham.
“I haven’t been saying no to it from the start. I have sat down with Ineos and hundreds of my constituents and have looked into it in some depth before coming to these conclusions.”
He said local people are concerned about the prospect of a repeat of the earth tremors recorded in Lancashire in 2011 which were linked to shale gas test drilling by the firm Cuadrilla, as well as the generation of extra traffic.
In a letter to Mr Barron in response to his concerns about the ordering of a public inquiry, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said earlier this month that denying the right to an appeal was “not a power that is within my gift”.
But he added: “As part of the appeals process, there will be opportunities for local people to have their views taken into account. In addition, all representations made during the planning application will be taken into account.”
The first application relates to a site in Harthill near Rotherham. A pre-inquiry hearing will take place on February 13, with a two-week inquiry due to take place in Rotherham from April 24.
The second application relates to a site close to the village of Marsh Lane, near Sheffield and on the Derbyshire-South Yorkshire border. A pre-inquiry hearing is scheduled for March 20 ahead of a two-week inquiry taking place from June 19.
Councillors on Rotherham Council’s planning board voted unanimously to oppose Ineos’s Harthill application last week; an advisory decision that will be passed to the public inquiry.
Derbyshire Council’s planning committee is to meet next week to discuss the Marsh Lane application.
A council officer has recommended the development is viewed as acceptable on the grounds that strict planning controls relating to dust, ecology, the impact on roads and traffic, archaeology, lighting and noise are put in place.
The coming public inquiries are expected to be a test case for future applications to conduct fracking exploration in Yorkshire and the rest of England and Wales. In August 2015, the Government announced shale gas applications were to be “fast-tracked”, giving councils a maximum of 16 weeks to determine a case.
The Marsh Lane and Harthill applications were both submitted by Ineos in May but neither were determined within the three-and-a-half-month timeframe.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “Ineos has appealed against Derbyshire County Council and Rotherham Metropolitan District Council’s failure to come to a planning decision within legal deadlines. As the cases are ongoing, we cannot comment further.”
Ineos, which is one of seven companies with Government licences to start exploring for shale gas across Yorkshire, also submitted a third planning application for work at another nearby site in Woodsetts, Rotherham, in November. Public consultation on those proposals is running until February 16.
In May 2016, North Yorkshire County Council gave the go-ahead to a company called Third Energy undertaking fracking for shale gas in the village of Kirby Misperton. Third Energy is awaiting Government approval of its financial accounts before imminently beginning test fracks.
In October 2016, the Government allowed an appeal by a gas firm Cuadrilla against Lancashire County Council’s decision to refuse permission for fracking work to take place at a site called Preston New Road.
The Government believes, despite environmentalists’ concerns about the increased use of fossil fuels, as well as chemicals escaping and contaminating groundwater, that “shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs”.
'Unreasonable delays' blamed by Ineos
Ineos’s decision to ask the Planning Inspectorate to intervene on its two applications was “not taken lightly”, the company’s operations director has said.
Tom Pickering said Ineos had granted numerous time extensions to both councils on the parallel application before asking the Government to step in.
“We understand the pressures on the councils to make decisions of national importance at a local level. Nevertheless, because of the unreasonable delays we have been left without an option if there is to be progress on these important projects.”
An Ineos spokesman added the company would be awaiting the outcome of Derbyshire Council’s decision on the Marsh Lane planning application “with interest”.
“INEOS Shale has the utmost respect for local decision-making and democracy and the work of Council officers and members. We would never pre-judge a committee decision and so await the outcome with interest," he said.