Onshore gas (including shale gas) – the position regarding exploration and development within the North York Moors National Park
There has been a long history of commercial interest in conventional onshore natural gas resources in and near to the National Park. Conventional forms of gas exploration and production have taken place within the National Park over recent decades, particularly in the south east of the National Park and around Westerdale, although no extraction is currently taking place. More recently, there has been interest in the potential for shale gas development in parts of eastern and northern North Yorkshire.
Is there shale gas under the National Park?
A report produced by British Geological Survey in 2013 suggests that the geology beneath the southern part of the North York Moors National Park may contain commercially viable shale gas resources. The British Geological Survey report suggests that, in this area, shale rock which could be suitable for extraction by hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) is likely to exist between 1,500 and 4,000 metres below the surface. Following publication of the Report, the Government granted a number of new exploration and development licenses in 2014 for onshore gas, some of which fall wholly or partly within the National Park. The areas currently licensed are shown on the Onshore Licensing map. To date no proposals for more detailed exploration for shale gas in the new license areas within the National Park have come forward. Planning permission was granted by North Yorkshire County Council in 2016 for test fracking for shale gas in a well located several kilometres outside the National Park, to the south of Pickering, but the development did not take place for other regulatory reasons.
If an area has a Government license for gas exploration and development does this mean that development, including fracking, can take place?
No. The Government periodically issues Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses in geographical blocks but for most forms of exploration, appraisal and production activity (the main exception being seismic surveys), there is a requirement that planning permission and other necessary permits be obtained before any activity can take place.
What is the national position on shale gas and fracking?
The national Government position on shale gas and fracking has changed significantly in recent years. In 2019 the Government imposed a moratorium on the granting of licences for fracking, pending further scientific evidence on the potential for minor earthquakes to be caused. This followed early experience of fracking for shale gas at well sites in Lancashire. In September 2022 the Government announced that it had lifted the moratorium and current Government policy is supportive in principle of shale gas development, provided there is local community support. Further details are awaited on what this might mean in practice.
Government policy and legislation applying in National Parks sets out a more restrictive approach to development, including for shale gas. Surface development within the National Park for the purposes of ‘high volume’ fracking is not currently allowed under the Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2016, although fracking underneath the National Park from a surface location outside it, using directional drilling, is not excluded under the Regulations, provided it is at a depth of more than 1,200m below the surface.
What is the local position on shale gas and fracking?
The North York Moors National Park is a specially-protected place for good reason. As the guardians of this magnificent landscape, its habitats, wildlife and tranquillity, the Authority remain firmly against fracking for shale gas in the National Park. We need to consider the area’s long-term interests.
The environment of the North York Moors, which includes everything from the dark skies at night to the unique geology and landforms, clean air and fresh water, matters greatly to both the National Park Authority and to the public as a whole. and that the Authority will take appropriate steps to preserve the integrity of the national asset it is charged to conserve.
Planning permission from the Minerals Planning Authority is required for exploration drilling and for the appraisal and production phases of gas extraction. The Minerals Planning Authority for the National Park is the North York Moors National Park Authority. Applications for planning permission will be considered against relevant planning policies, including those contained in the Minerals and Waste Joint Plan for York, North Yorkshire and the North York Moors National Park, which was adopted in March 2022.
Consideration of planning applications would include assessment of a range of effects such as landscape and visual impact, effects on the natural environment, effects on local amenity and vehicle movements. In many cases applications for planning permission would need to be accompanied by an Environmental Impact Assessment. As part of the planning application process there would be an opportunity for members of the public to comment on the application.
What approach does the Minerals and Waste Joint Plan take towards shale gas and fracking?
The Minerals and Waste Joint Plan is an important document as it sets out a more detailed local approach to consideration of planning applications for onshore gas development, including where shale gas and fracking are involved. The Joint Plan adds to the protections set out in national policy and legislation. Key measures contained in the Joint Plan include a policy requiring all surface development for the purposes of fracking to be located outside the National Park, including where the scale of the proposed fracking would not meet the threshold where more restrictive national policies and regulations would apply; a requirement for surface development outside but near to the boundary of the National Park to be subject to more detailed scrutiny of impact on the National Park landscape, including its setting; the need to demonstrate that fracking underneath the National Park, from a surface location outside it, would not harm the National Park (and where the proposal is for appraisal or production, would meet the ‘major development test’ requirements of exceptional circumstances and public interest); a need for particularly careful scrutiny of impacts where development is proposed within 500m of residential property; and a requirement to demonstrate that multiple developments in an area for shale gas purposes would not cause unacceptable cumulative impacts. The Joint Plan also contains detailed policies dealing with matters such as traffic, waste water and emissions.
What other permits and consents are required before fracking can take place and how is fracking monitored?
The process of fracking, including the exploration and appraisal phases, are tightly controlled and subject to a number of regulatory regimes, in addition to the need for planning permission. The role of the other main bodies involved in issuing consents and licenses for fracking are summarised below.
The Government awards Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses which give the holder exclusive rights to oil and gas exploration within a given area. A license does not give detailed consent for drilling or any other specific development associated with gas exploration or production. This is the responsibility of The North Sea Transition Authority. As part of this process, a Hydraulic Fracturing Programme must be prepared, setting out details of how the potential for seismic activity will be monitored and controlled where necessary.
The Environment Agency is responsible for issuing and monitoring permits related to water use, protecting water quality, the use of chemicals and the management of waste water. A permit would not be issued if it is considered that the activity would pose an unacceptable risk to the environment. The Environment Agency would also be consulted on any planning applications for fracking.
The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for regulating and monitoring the safety of the well and the site. Further details are available on the Health and Safety Executive’s website. Public Health England may also be involved in providing advice on matters relating to human health.