Towards a Minerals Local Plan for Derbyshire and Derby

Towards a Strategy for Hydrocarbons

Planning, Economic, Social and Environmental Issues

3.1    The main issues to be addressed in the new Minerals Local Plan centre around the scale of the hydrocarbon resource in the Plan area, how much more may be discovered, how economical it could be to work those resources and the economic, environmental and social impacts of extraction set against the potential benefits. The specific impacts will vary according to the source of the hydrocarbon (conventional or unconventional) and the techniques employed to extract the mineral from the ground. The main issues of relevance to the new MLP are summarised below.  

3.2    The surface site area requirements to facilitate the extraction of onshore oil and gas are significantly different from other forms of mineral extraction. In most cases the site area required to accommodate the drilling equipment and the well-head, together with the limited level of ancillary facilities, is small compared to developments for the extraction of other minerals such as limestone or sand and gravel. For example some extraction sites for these types of minerals in Derbyshire extend to hundreds of hectares.  This may affect the scale and nature of impacts created by the respective developments. Further, the experience in the Plan area to date is that most oil and gas developments have been relatively short term operations (less than 20 years), which has reduced the duration of any impacts that were generated.  In contrast some of the limestone quarries in the northern part of the Plan area have been in operation since the 1940s (or earlier) and will continue in operation for many years to come.

3.3    The visual impact of hydrocarbon developments is an important consideration. The size of the drilling equipment and well-head structures can vary from 3 to 4 metres for mobile facilities (used for exploratory drilling) to 15 metres or more for ‘permanent’ large-scale operations requiring deep drilling, and these could be visually intrusive in sensitive or exposed locations. The choice of location for the surface installations will be influenced by the need to maximise the volume of oil and gas that can be extracted, taking account of the geological conditions between the surface and the resource, and other environmental and amenity restrictions such as site access and the need to minimise any visual intrusion. This flexibility could also be used to minimise any adverse impact on local communities and landscape or archaeological features in the area. 

3.4    Whilst these operations are relatively short-term, the drilling activities are normally a continuous operation, where drilling occurs 24 hours per day for the duration of that activity. The NPPG indicates that, for conventional hydrocarbons, site construction, exploratory drilling and site clearance will typically take between 12 to 25 weeks for onshore developments. It adds that for unconventional hydrocarbons exploratory drilling may take considerably longer, especially if there is going to be hydraulic fracturing and, in the case of coalbed methane, removing water from the coal seam. This period has the potential to generate unacceptable levels of noise, particularly at night time. Additional noise could be generated by other ancillary on-site activities and also off-site from lorry movements. Due to the relatively small site areas involved, the level of ground disturbance is modest compared to other mineral extraction operations and this should reduce the potential for dust emissions, although dust emissions could be an issue for some specific operations.

3.5    The NPPG indicates that other potential adverse impacts which are particularly associated with conventional and unconventional oil and gas developments are those concerning pollution risks. Pollution risks will vary depending on the extraction technique being used but could include the spillage of oil at the surface, seepage pollution from below ground to the surface and the disposal of drilling mud and other drilling residues which could be contaminated. An additional issue is the potential need to dispose of (probably flare) unwanted gas. The management of these issues are mainly the responsibility of other regulators but they are matters of relevance to the planning process. The NPPG indicates that additional impacts could arise from the methods employed to transport the oil and gas from the extraction site to where it is to be used or processed. The main methods for onshore oil and gas are pipelines or heavy goods vehicles.

3.6    The NPPF advises that all mineral extraction development proposals should be formulated to avoid or minimise any adverse impact on areas of high quality agricultural land, areas at risk of flooding and any important features of ecological value. It acknowledges that in some cases if may not be possible to completely avoid all biodiversity interests, but in cases where the benefits of the development outweigh such adverse impacts, the replacement of such features should be an integral part of the restoration plans.

3.7    The potential environmental impacts of obtaining methane gas from coal reserves will vary according to the technique employed. Coalbed Methane extraction operations involve drilling and other aspects common to traditional operations for obtaining oil and gas from conventional sources and therefore some of the potential impacts are likely to be similar. Water in the coal measures is normally removed to help increase the volume of gas that can be obtained so additional attention should be given to the impacts of abstracting ground waters. The Gasification of virgin underground coal measures leaves the coal in situ, eliminating the need for extracted materials to be stored above ground (as in coal mining operations), but the process does deplete the coal resource and does not completely avoid the risk of subsidence. This technique could give rise to other impacts if any of the materials used in the process entered the water system. The extraction of methane from old or current mine workings minimises the dangers from the uncontrolled escape of gas from these facilities, taking advantage of a resource that may otherwise go to waste, but it also requires the use of ground level facilities to capture and store the gas which could give rise to access and visual intrusion impacts depending upon the location.

3.8    Whilst the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States is now established and expanding, experience in the UK is very limited. The publicity generated by recent exploratory facilities in this country however, has led to concerns about potential adverse environmental impacts. The main issues identified in recent Government publications (in particular the Department of Energy and Climate Change - see footnotes 3, 13, 14, 15, 16 and, 17) relate to:

  • Risk of fractures propagating from shale reaching the overlying aquifers. The DECC publication[1] states that available evidence suggests that this risk is very low provided that the shale gas extraction takes place at depths of hundreds of metres or more.
  • The large quantities of water required in the process and the risk of depleting local eco-systems.
  • Seismic activity. Research indicates that the seismic events experienced in Blackpool in 2011 were related to the shale gas drilling operation by Cuadrilla Resources. The outcome of research on this matter was summarised in the DECC publication which suggests that the level of seismic activity arising from fracking would be similar to that from previous coal mining activities and would be smaller than naturally occurring events.
  • Methane leakage. Concerns that even small leakages of methane during shale gas extraction may offset the effects of reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Property values. The DECC publication Fracking UK shale, planning permission and communities17, states that there is no evidence that current exploration will adversely affect insurance availability or property values in the vicinity as no effects of this kind have been observed in 50 years of onshore oil and gas exploration and production. It also indicates that house buyer searches may reveal that properties lie within or near to an area covered by a PEDL licence but as these areas are very large the property may not be anywhere near a hydrocarbon development site.

3.9    Two reports published in 2011 and 201218 concluded that the use of high pressure water did not pose a significant risk to water supplies from underground aquifers, subject to appropriate design, (the risks being assessed to be  no different to those encountered when exploring for hydrocarbons in conventional geological formations), and that “the health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.” The NPPG states that several of these concerns are matters for other regulators and mineral planning authorities should assume that these regimes will operate effectively. Notwithstanding these assertions these considerations will be assessed in the development of any new policy.

3.10  The Government has also announced a package of benefits8 for those communities who will host shale exploration and production. The announcement stated the package would provide a welcome boost for those communities as well as offering strong assurances that operators will engage with them and work to the highest health, safety and environmental standards. With regard to community engagement the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG)19 issued a publication which outlines the steps that the industry will take to address concerns around safety, noise, dust, truck movements and other environmental issues. In January 2014 the Government announced that councils would be able to keep 100% of the business rates collected from shale gas sites.

3.11  The security of energy supplies is a major issue for society as a whole. The corresponding consultation paper Towards a Strategy for Coal and Colliery Waste, summarises the major contribution to energy provision obtained from coal but also explains why there is uncertainty about its future role. The section on national energy policy above indicates that the Government is seeking to secure future energy supplies from a variety of sources (including hydrocarbons) whilst simultaneously reducing our carbon footprint. Gas is seen as the cleanest fossil fuel and Government statements suggest that interest in obtaining gas from onshore facilities is likely to increase significantly over the Plan period.    

 

Further information about the issues raised by hydraulic fracturing can be found in the Derbyshire and Derby Minerals Local Plan Shale Gas supporting Paper, August 2015.

 

 

3.12  The summary provided above together with the experience of the Councils of processing planning applications for mineral developments, including coal and hydrocarbons and the observations made by local communities in response to publicity on those applications and to previous consultation exercises would indicate that the factors which need to be taken into account in developing a strategy for the provision of hydrocarbons in the Minerals Local Plan relate to:

  • Government energy policy to secure sufficient supplies of energy to serve the requirements of the country whilst also reducing our carbon footprint
  • The benefits of an indigenous supply compared to a growing reliance on imported sources
  • The uncertainty about the future of coal as a means of energy production
  • The limited supply of energy requirements currently met by renewable facilities
  • The current support, in principle, of the Government for more energy supplies to be obtained from hydrocarbons
  • The known availability of oil and gas resources in the Plan area and the potential for further resources to be discovered
  • The limited level of information about the location, scale and economic viability of the hydrocarbon resource in the Plan area
  • The likelihood that these questions may be resolved during the Plan period leading to the development of proposals to extract those resources
  • The environmental and social impacts of extracting those resources, some of which are well known whilst other potential impacts are less certain
  • The likelihood that proposals for exploration and appraisal will be forthcoming during the Plan period
  • The potential for new extraction technologies to be developed over the Plan period
  • The possible identification of potential areas for hydrocarbon extraction
  • The issue of the identification of constraints
  • The development of policies, including detailed criteria, which would be used to assess and determine future hydrocarbon extraction applications
  • The definition of potential benefits, how they should be assessed and the role to be played in the determination of proposals for new working

3.13  The County and City Councils will need to explain and justify why the forthcoming Plan adopts the approach it takes to the extraction of minerals in the area, the policies it contains and the level of provision it makes for the extraction of certain minerals during the Plan period. The prior identification of the main issues will form an important part of that explanation and justification. It is important therefore that the Plan sets out the evidence on which it is based, the main issues which were identified, and how the responses from all interested parties to consultations on those issues were taken into account and led to the selection of the Plan in its ultimately adopted form. We therefore want you to tell us whether or not you consider that the list above covers all of the issues relating to the extraction of hydrocarbons in Derbyshire and Derby that will need to be addressed in the new Minerals Local Plan.

 

3  See 1.2, page 2.

[1] Department of Energy and Climate Change, about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), 30 July 2013.

14 Department of Energy and Climate Change, Onshore Shale Gas and Oil – Facts about Fracking, December 2013.

15 Department of Energy and Climate Change, Regulatory Roadmap: Onshore Oil and Gas    Extraction in the UK – Regulation and Best Practice, December 2013

16 Department of Energy and Climate Change, The Hydrocarbon Prospectivity of Britain’s Onshore Basin, 2010.

17 Other DECC publications – Facts about fracking, Fracking UK shale: climate change, Fracking UK shale: local air quality, Fracking UK shale: planning permission and communities, Fracking UK shale: regulation and monitoring, Fracking UK shale: safety from design to decommissioning, Fracking UK shale: understanding earthquake risk, and Fracking UK shale: water.

8 See 2.2, page 8.[1]

18 Energy and Climate Committee report of inquiry into Shale Gas, 23 May 2011 and Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, Shale Gas Extraction in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing, June 2012.

19 United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG) June 2013,  Community Engagement Charter – Oil and Gas From Unconventional Reservoirs  Package of community benefits announced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change on 27 June 2013.