What fracking is
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as 'fracking' is an operation in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are pumped at high pressure through boreholes into gas bearing rocks. The water opens up cracks in the rock, and the sand grains lodge into the spaces allowing gas to be released and travel back along the borehole. Shale gas extracted via fracking is an ‘unconventional hydrocarbon’ unlike the conventional hydrocarbons currently extracted in Dorset.
Will fracking for shale gas ever happen in Dorset?
To date, applications to explore for possible oil or gas resources in Dorset have only concerned conventional hydrocarbons (oil and gas reserves contained within specific reservoirs, sometimes within rock, that are normally extracted through drilling). No applications have ever been submitted for shale gas test wells or for production of shale gas via the method of fracking.
It is likely that there are shale gas resources in Dorset, but as yet, the full extent and location of these resources is unclear. There is also considerable uncertainty as to whether the geology in Dorset will prove to be suitable for fracking or that it will be financially viable.
Shale gas: incentives for local communities
In January 2014 the government announced that it would allow local councils to keep 100 per cent of business rates they collect from shale gas well sites (previously 50 per cent), which could be worth up to £1,700,000 for a typical site. Community benefits for local people have also been strengthened with local communities receiving up to £100,000 from the industry for any test well that is fracked, and a further 1% if shale gas is discovered: estimated to be worth between £5 to 10 million for the life of a typical well (refer to the government’s website for details).
It is important to note that such incentives would not affect the determination of planning applications. The Mineral Planning Authority will consider all applications in the light of its adopted planning policies and will make a judgement as to their acceptability or otherwise in planning terms.
Petroleum exploration and development licenses
The government, through the Department of Energy and Climate Change, is responsible for issuing onshore and offshore petroleum exploration and development licenses. Licenses are usually awarded to bidders who can demonstrate they are able to optimise exploitation of the UK’s petroleum resources.
On 28 July 2014 the Department of Energy and Climate Change announced the 14th Licensing Round for onshore oil and gas licenses. The bidding process will be open until 28 October 2014. This affects extensive parts of the country that are not already covered by an existing license. In the case of Dorset, parts of the county are already covered and so the new license round will only cover those parts not already under license.
This licensing round has received a lot of national media attention because it is being associated with the controversial extraction method of hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ of shale gas. However, it is important to remember that the licenses apply to all forms of oil and gas extraction and are not specific to the type of resource, for example shale gas, or extraction method. It is unlikely that companies will seek to pursue shale gas extraction in areas where it is unviable or where the geology is unsuitable.
Once a company has a license, can it develop a well site?
The issuing of a license has no bearing upon the need for planning permission or any necessary environmental permits to explore or extract oil and gas. If and when a company decides that it wishes to explore the potential for oil or gas extraction within its license area, it needs to apply to the Mineral Planning Authority for planning permission. This must show where the well site is intended to be located, together with details of the site layout. A separate planning permission is then needed for the production phase if the exploration/appraisal phase identifies potentially viable reserves.
Production of oil and gas is likely to have a bigger impact than a test well. For this reason there is no automatic right to consent for production even if permission has previously been granted for exploration. In all cases planning applications need to be considered having regard to the Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole Minerals Strategy (adopted in May 2014), which sets out policies on exploration, appraisal and production of hydrocarbons, and the National Planning Policy Framework and associated guidance.
Will the importance of Dorset’s environment be a consideration?
In parallel with the latest oil and gas licensing round the government has produced additional planning practice guidance on unconventional hydrocarbons (which covers fracking of shale gas). This emphasises that where applications for unconventional hydrocarbons represent major development, ‘…planning permission should be refused in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest’. It adds that ‘World Heritage Sites are heritage assets of the highest significance. Where a proposed development for unconventional hydrocarbons would lead to substantial harm to or loss of a World Heritage Site, mineral planning authorities should refuse consent unless wholly exceptional circumstances apply’. In Dorset, significant parts of the county are within AONBs, while much of the coast is a designated World Heritage Site, although these are not the only relevant considerations. The adopted minerals strategy sets out a comprehensive range of environmental and other matters that need to be taken into account.
How planning permission would be decided
Dorset County Council as the Minerals Planning Authority is responsible for determining any planning applications for hydrocarbons (oil and gas) in the county. This would include fracking proposals should any ever be submitted for consideration. However in Poole, due to its Unitary Status, any Planning Application would be determined by this council as the Local Planning Authority. In this respect, Dorset County Council, with which we have a service level agreement to provide policy in respect of minerals and waste issues, would be the expert consultee that would be relied upon in any planning judgement. If a planning application is received outside, but adjacent to this authority, we would become a statutory consultee in the process. Planning applications will be judged on the basis of the recently adopted minerals strategy which contains a range of policies against which proposals will be considered. The Mineral Planning Authority will also need to consider the national planning policy position regarding conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons.
Borough of Poole's View
As the Mineral Planning Authority, we must consider proposals impartially against the current policy framework. Dorset County Council and Bournemouth as neighbouring authorities would be key consultees in this process. In determining any application, we will take into account the potential impact of proposals on the local community, environment, natural resources and economy to ensure that the people and special qualities of Poole are safeguarded.
Page last updated: 18 July 2018