Scottish planning policy
Scottish planning policy notes the Government’s aim in relation to onshore oil and gas extraction is:
“to maximise the potential of Scotland’s oil and gas reserves in an environmentally acceptable manner as part of a strategy for achieving safe, secure and indigenous energy supply.” (Scottish Planning Policy 2010, para 236)
This means there is a general presumption in favour of onshore oil and gas projects including coalbed methane and shale. However, in order to comply with Scottish Planning Policy, onshore oil and gas extraction needs to be referenced in local authorities’ Local Development Plans (LDP).
Once such development is in a Local Development Plan it becomes harder for communities to object to on principal.
A number of relevant local authorities are at key stages in their drafting of these plans, and it may be possible to influence those still in the development stage by talking to your Councillors about the risks. Find out what stage your Council is at with its Local Development Plan.
During the exploration and early testing stages projects are unlikely to require permanent structures and therefore they don’t need planning permission. However, once the development phase is underway the project is likely to need some above ground structures and they need to apply for planning permission from the Local Authority.
For example, pilot projects at Airth and Canonbie both involved a number of developments such as well heads, portacabins and site access roads, all of which were subject to planning permission.
If the development covers an area of less than 2 hectares then it can be treated as a local development, which means that in most councils the application will be considered by planning officials. Major developments on the other hand, are considered by the council’s planning committee which includes elected Councillors.
While each individual well head in an unconventional gas development is unlikely to be larger than 2 ha, the cumulative impact of the numerous well heads required to extract coalbed methane or shale gas amounts to a major development.
Councillors can ask that any planning application is called in and examined by the planning committee instead of at officer level. You can write to your Councillors to raise your concerns and request this course of action if you think there is a development in your area that might fly under the radar of fuller Council scrutiny.
While planning applications related to initial exploration at Airth appear to have been treated by local authorities as local developments, Dart’s recent application for 14 well heads in Stirling and Falkirk are being treated as a major development.
Permission to frack
Communities may struggle to identify where developments on the ground relate to unconventional onshore gas, and specifically where fracking might take place.
For example, in Canonbie, Greenpark (now owned by Dart Energy) obtained planning permission for the above ground infrastructure for their CBM project. As part of this process Greenpark did an Environmental Impact Assessment as requested by Dumfries and Galloway Council.
However, when the developers subsequently wrote to the Council requesting a variation of planning permission to allow them to frack, the Council responded that no further permission was required, but the company should get a license from SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency).
SEPA could have asked the developer to advertise the application to allow local interested parties to engage in the licensing process, or sought to issue a draft license for consultation, however they did not with this application.
This means that there was no opportunity in the formal planning process for the local people to express their views on fracking in their community!
Part of the problem with coalbed methane developments is that in the early stages of commercial production de-watering the seams might be enough to get the gas flowing, and fracking might only be required several years down the line when production starts to decline.
Developers therefore may assert that they do not intend to frack and relived communities may chose not to fight a straightforward coalbed methane development because it doesn’t sound as bad as fracking. However, not only are there a number of environmental risks associated with all coalbed methane extraction, but there’s a good chance that later on the development will involve fracking.