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Fracked Off: Official Watchdog Slams Government Fracking Plans

The Conservative administration’s policy to expand hydraulic fracking to 20 sites is in disarray because of a slew of planning objections and worries about decommissioning.

The Conservative administration’s policy to expand hydraulic fracking to 20 sites is in disarray because of a slew of planning objections and worries about decommissioning.

Unprecedented objections and protests against fracking in England have meant a government plan to have 20 sites in operation by the middle of next year has been missed by a huge margin, the National Audit Office reveals today.

So far, only three sites are operating in England and many others are caught up in planning objections and are making slow progress.

Where sites have opened, police forces and the Home Office have been left with large bills to protect them against continual protests. Lancashire Constabulary, for example, has been employing between 25 and 100 officers a day to police fracking sites between January 2017 and June 2019, at a cost of £11.8 million. The Home Office has reimbursed £5.8 million to the local council.

The NAO report says that fracking is becoming increasingly unpopular with the public as more sites are chosen to sink wells and councils are being overwhelmed by objections to new sites from local residents.

“All local authorities we spoke to said planning applications for fracking generated unprecedented public interest,” it says. “For example, North Yorkshire County Council received more than 4,000 representations in its consultation on a shale gas application, compared with nearly 450 representations it received for what it considered a contentious application for a waste recovery park. Lancashire County Council reported receiving about 36,000 representations from the public in relation to two fracking applications.”

Planning approvals are taking a year or more to get through and a number have been rejected – notably one in Lancashire, Roseacre Wood, which took five years before it was rejected by ministers. New plans for fracking in Rotherham and Ellesmere Port have been thrown out by councils.

Ministers could “call in” plans to speed up the progress but have not done so in most cases. 

Decommissioning Costs

The report also reveals that, unlike the oil, gas and nuclear industries, there are no proper provisions for decommissioning the wells once they are exhausted.

In the case of other fossil fuel industries, the Government is ultimately liable for the decommissioning costs. But this is not the case with fracking. The report points out that firms could avoid their liabilities by going bust, leaving the site a contaminated eyesore. This could also occur where a decommissioned well is found to need further restoration after an operator has surrendered its environmental permit.

“The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [in this case] says landowners may be liable for decommissioning costs if an operator is unable to fund them, but these arrangements are unclear and untested,” the report says. 

Originally, the ministry thought it could use the powers held by the Environment Agency to compel companies to restore sites. But this has been contradicted by the agency which has told the NAO that it is unable to use them to pursue insolvent operators or landowners, contradicting the advice given by the department to the committee.

The result is that no one is clear what will happen when fracking in some areas is exhausted.

“The Environment Agency may be able to pursue landowners under other statutory powers, but these would have limitations and are untested in the oil and gas sector,” the report says. “The department could not tell us what would happen should the landowner be unable to meet decommissioning costs.”

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