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Fracking: the story so far

Ruth Hayhurst photo
Ruth Hayhurst
Fracking: the story so far
Earthquakes, protests, planning blocks and politics: four years of Britain’s controversial shale gas industry and the campaigns against it.

The tiny North Yorkshire village of Kirby Misperton, with its country house hotel and flower beds on the verges, seems an unlikely place for confrontation. That’s until you spot the posters. And once you’ve seen one you see them all over the place: on fences, signposts and at the bus stop.

The village in Ryedale, between Malton and Pickering, is the new front line for fracking. If Third Energy gets its way, Kirby Misperton is likely to be the first place in the UK to see high pressure hydraulic fracturing since 2011.

Third Energy, almost entirely funded by a subsidiary of Barclays Bank, wants to frack an existing gas well less than a mile from the centre of the village. And it has plans for 19 fracking sites in Ryedale, each with 10-50 wells.

There’s an active campaign to stop Third Energy in its tracks at Kirby Misperton. Children have raised £1,500 for the fighting fund from a sponsored walk. 80-year-olds are handing out leaflets at public meetings. And this week, a couple spent their wedding anniversary questioning public officials about regulation. But the opponents knows they have a fight on their hands.

Kirby Misperton is the latest name on a growing list of places across the UK where people have challenged plans by the onshore oil and gas industry.

Not all these challenges have been about fracking. But a fear of fracking has influenced many of them. In all these places, there are local supporters of the industry, as well as opponents, and both sides have seen triumphs and disappointment.

I’ve been following the onshore oil and gas industry and the local reaction to it since July 2013 when there were anti-fracking protests at Balcombe in West Sussex.

The next year is likely to be critical for both sides. You can follow developments with me on Byline, where I’ll be posting a weekly newsletter, or for daily updates go to

But first, it’s worth going back to 1st April 2011 when the earth moved in the Fylde area of Lancashire.

The Preese Hall earthquake

Some journalists thought it was an April Fool when reports linked an earthquake near Blackpool to fracking at a local shale gas site at Preese Hall. But it was no joke for those people in Lancashire who were becoming concerned about fracking. Nor for Cuadrilla, the company that had fracked the well. After the earthquake, and another nearly two months later, nothing was ever quite the same for the onshore oil and gas industry.

High pressure hydraulic fracturing – the process of injecting water, chemicals and sand under pressure into shale rock to release gas – was used in the UK for the first time at Preese Hall. The operation intercepted a geological fault and caused the earthquakes.

Until then, according to a Cuadrilla executive, you could get planning permission for fracking on the say-so of a council officer.

After Preese Hall, the government declared a moratorium on fracking which lasted until 13th December 2012. And people across the UK started paying much closer attention to drilling on land for oil and gas.

Anti-fracking and no-drilling campaign groups began to form across the UK. They organised and shared information by social media. As well as investigating fracking, they started to scrutinise plans for conventional oil and gas wells, which had previously been drilled without much comment.

The battle of Balcombe

On 25th July 2013, when Cuadrilla tried to deliver equipment to its new oil exploration site at Balcombe in West Sussex, it was met with demonstrations by people from the village, the local area and further afield.

During the moratorium, the company had told civil servants it had to frack at Balcombe for the well to be commercially viable. It later told the villagers it might frack, if necessary. Later it said it definitely wouldn’t. But that didn’t stop opposition to the company.

Protests at Balcombe lasted 65 days and the village tea rooms did a roaring trade as journalists from across the world came to report the story. David Cameron told The Telegraph he was determined to win the national debate on shale gas.

126 people were arrested at Balcombe, including the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. The arrests resulted in 114 charges but when the cases went through the courts many were dropped or the defendants acquitted. Only 27 charges ended in convictions. All the people prosecuted under the Public Order Act, including Dr Lucas, were found not guilty. Policing at Balcombe cost £3.985 million.

Cuadrilla’s operation divided opinion in Balcombe.

A poll for the parish council found 133 people thought the village should support any future fracking applications, 548 thought it should oppose and 201 thought applications should be considered on their merits. Balcombe also appeared to change wider public opinion. In September 2013, researchers at Nottingham University found growing opposition to fracking and falling support, which they attributed to the “Balcombe Effect”.

In the end, Cuadrilla ran out of time to do more than drill the well. It reapplied for planning permission in April 2013 and, despite 900+ objections, it got consent to test the well. So far no work has been carried out and the well remains suspended.

Barton Moss and beyond

After Balcombe, anti-fracking protests moved to Barton Moss in Salford, where IGas had planning permission to explore for coal bed methane. Between November 2013 and April 2014 there were more arrests though less national media attention. Like Balcombe, some legal cases were dropped before they came to trial. Many are still going through the courts.

Protesters also established camps at Crawberry Hill and West Newton in East Yorkshire, where Rathlin Energy was testing exploratory gas wells, and at Farndon, Upton and Woolston in Cheshire and Borras near Wrexham.

Some campaigners chose different routes to try to stop onshore drilling. At Fernhurst, in the South Downs National Park, landowners created a legal block, refusing Celtique Energie permission for a horizontal well to be drilled under their land. Bianca Jagger and 200+ campaign groups called for a moratorium until a human rights impact assessment had been published.

Celtique Energie failed to get permission to drill at Fernhurst or between Wisborough Green and Kirdford in West Sussex. IGas abandoned an appeal over planning permission at Duddleston Heath in Shropshire after the landowner refused to renew access rights. But wells were drilled in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Surrey and Dorset and Rathlin Energy got consent for a third well in East Yorkshire.

Back to the Fylde

In summer 2014 attention returned to Lancashire when Cuadrilla applied for planning permission to frack up to four wells each at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood. This was the industry’s chance to prove it could frack safely and without disturbing local people.

Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Francis Egan, said the gas extracted could be heating UK homes by late 2015.

It took about a year for the applications to be decided, partly because Cuadrilla asked for a deferral in January 2015 when planning officers recommended refusal of both applications.

When they finally came before councillors in June this year, large crowds of opponents gathered outside County Hall in Preston. Inside, about 25 people spoke in favour of the applications and nearly 80 against. There were more than 30,000 written objections and more than 400 letters in support.

At times, the hearings were chaotic, with adjournments, private sessions, conflicting legal opinions and allegations that councillors were told they would be breaking the law if they voted against the advice of officers.

Councillors accepted officers’ recommendations to refuse the fracking application at Roseacre Wood on traffic grounds. But they overruled the planners on Preston New Road and refused permission. The cheers from outside county hall could be heard in the council chamber.

Cuadrilla has appealed against both decisions and a 12-day public inquiry is due to start in February next year.

The arguments

Supporters of fracking and onshore oil and gas production have argued it could:

• Reduce electricity and gas prices for UK homes
• Create jobs, particularly in the supply chain and service sector
• Increase UK fuel security by reducing dependence on foreign suppliers
• Help the UK move to a low-carbon economy by displacing coal in electricity generation
• Provide a feedstock for manufacturing industry

Opponents have argued against onshore drilling because it could:

• Pollute air and water
• Contribute to climate change, through fugitive emissions and continued use of fossil fuels
• Disturb people living nearby through increased noise, light pollution and traffic
• Industrialise the countryside and threaten wildlife
• Cause health problems through pollution and stress

Each side disputes the arguments of the other.

What people think

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and Nottingham University have been carrying out regular surveys of public attitudes to fracking. The most recent results from both surveys have found support is the lowest so far and opposition is at record levels.

In September 2015, the Nottingham survey put support on 46.5% and opposition on 36.1%. This is down from 52.6% in favour and 27% against when the question was first asked in June 2012. DECC’s most recent results from June 2015 found that 21% supported fracking, compared with 28% who opposed and 46% who did not give an opinion. DECC concluded:

“Support for fracking appears to be linked to awareness. There is more opposition than support amongst those who know a lot about it”.

Fracking made easier

In January 2014, the then Energy Minister, Michael Fallon, said:

“I shall be doing everything I can to step up the pace of exploration and where barriers or hurdles are brought to my attention we will go out and we will tackle them.”

Over the following months the government did just that.

It announced councils would be allowed to keep 100% of business rates from shale gas sites. Campaigners said this would lead to a conflict of interest when planning applications were being considered.

In July 2014, the government offered oil and gas exploration licences across more than half the country. 159 licences are expected to be awarded by the end of the year.

The Infrastructure Act, which became law in February 2015, made it a statutory responsibility of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to maximise the economic recovery of onshore oil and gas. The act also changed the trespass law to allow companies to drill and store substances underground without landowners’ permission.

A set of regulations that accompany the act are likely to allow fracking under National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, though not in them. There are no legal restrictions on fracking in or under Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The regulations also defined fracking by the volume of fluid used – either 1,000 cubic metres at each stage or 10000 cubic metres in total. Campaigners have argued this will allow companies to carry out hydraulic fracturing in all but name by using slightly less than the volumes in the regulations.

More measures continued throughout 2015. In March, the government announced it would change the planning laws to allow groundwater monitoring boreholes to be drilled without planning permission. It also consulted on extending this exemption to drilling boreholes for seismic testing.

In August the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Greg Clark, announced that councils which took longer than 16 weeks to decide oil and gas applications could lose the right to rule on them in future. He also said he would pay particular attention to oil and gas planning appeals, suggesting he may make the decision, rather than a planning inspector.

There was also action that made it riskier to take direct action against fracking. From April, anyone convicted of a criminal offence faced a mandatory fixed court charge of at least £150, as well as any fines or costs. Anti-fracking campaigners say this would deter peaceful protest.

Fracking made harder?

On the other hand, the industry has faced some new challenges.

The Scottish Government announced a moratorium on fracking in January 2015, followed a month later by one in Wales. In Northern Ireland, new planning guidance issued in September 2015 included a presumption against fracking. This week, Scotland extended the moratorium to the technique of underground coal gasification.

More than 30 councils, including Trafford, Manchester and Newcastle, have passed motions opposing or raising concerns about fracking.

Most recently Ryedale District Council, which includes Kirby Misperton, voted for a five-year moratorium on fracking. The decision on Third Energy’s application will be made by North Yorkshire County Council. But the moratorium vote committed Ryedale District Council to objecting to the application.

The website Frack Off lists 213 anti-fracking groups in the UK. Opponents of fracking have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the planning system and a growing ability to mobilise community support. They are also raising money to employ their own consultants.

The Infrastructure Act, criticised by opponents of fracking for not tightening regulation of the oil and gas industry, has introduced some restrictions. Fracking can’t normally be carried out at depths of less than 1,000m. And the act requires operators to do 12 months’ monitoring of methane in groundwater before fracking can go ahead.

The question of regulation

The Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, said in August 2015 that the UK’s oil and gas regulations did “everything possible to allay people’s concerns and protect the environment”. She said: “We have over 50 years of drilling operation experience which means standards are high, and we’ve also learnt valuable lessons from shale projects abroad.”

But an analysis of UK fracking regulations by Dr Joanne Hawkins, of Bristol University, concluded that current UK regulation – developed for conventional oil and gas experience - does not fit the technology and processes [of fracking] it is trying to control. She said:

“Until this fact is acknowledged and addressed, the regulation governing fracking will continue to be inadequate”.

What happens now?

After the general election, Amber Rudd said:

“With a Conservative majority, I believe we’ll be able to deliver shale”.

Now that fracking in Lancashire depends on the outcome of a planning appeal, the decision at Kirby Misperton has become the next test of this commitment.

North Yorkshire County Council’s planning and regulatory functions committee is expected to make a decision next month, possibly on Monday 2nd November.

At a public meeting this week, the local MP, Kevin Hollinrake, said fracking the Kirby Misperton well was “the right thing to do to”. “This modest first step” would, he said, “give us our own data to judge the impacts”.

But people in the audience, many opposed to fracking, accused Third Energy of treating them like guinea pigs and sacrificial lambs. One opponent said:

"There'll be a huge backlash if this goes through".

• From next Saturday you can read the latest news about fracking and the onshore oil and gas industry in my weekly newsletter written specially for Byline. For daily updates, you can visit

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