BY RUTH HAYHURST ON MARCH 1, 2017
Councillors in Lancashire have increased the rig height and the noise limit for restoration work at Cuadrilla’s shale gas site near the Ribble Estuary. But they refused the company’s request for longer working hours and an extended finish date.
The company had argued that conditions set in 2014 on the planning permission for the site at Becconsall were unworkable and unreasonable.
Since January 2017 it has asked for several changes to the conditions:
Increase the rig height from 22m to 32m
Raise the noise limit from 42 dB measured at the boundary of the site to 55dB measured at the nearest home
Extend the working day for some operations to 9pm
Work through the night
Extend the deadline to complete work from 31 August to 31 October 2017.
After advice from county council planning officers, the company agreed to reduce the noise limit to 50dB and this was approved by the development control committee this morning.
But the committee said the work must be completed by 31 August and work on all phases of the work must be carried out from 7.30am-6.30pm on weekdays and 7.30am-1pm on Saturdays, with no work on public holidays or Sundays.
The votes were nine to five in favour of the higher rig and 10 to two with two abstentions on an amended motion on noise limit and working hours.
The committee heard Cuadrilla was asking for a 32m rig because its 22m rig had been decommissioned.
Cllr Michael Green said he wanted evidence that a 22m rig was not available. And Cllr David Howarth said:
“When they submitted the original application one presumes they knew what size of rig was available and what type of rig was appropriate. So why they suddenly now need to come back with all these rigs suddenly disappeared certainly from this area I don’t know.
“Given the size of the commercial operation of Cuadrilla the fact that this rig not being available is questionable at the least.”
Councillors were also concerned about the increased limit on noise from the site. Cllr Keith Sedgwick said he saw no reason to change the original 42 dB conditions.
But planning officers said this condition was “badly written” and did not comply with government guidance.
Cllr Alan Schofield said the aim of the application was to restore the site as soon as possible. He did not want the committee to do anything that would delay restoration for another year.
Cuadrilla was first granted planning permission for Becconsall in 2010 by a council officer working under delegated powers. That included a condition that the site should be restored within 18 months of the start of development. Work began in March 2011 so the site should have been restored by September 2012.
Ribble Estuary Against Fracking, which opposed the change of conditions, submitted an independent noise assessment. This concluded that increased noise limits of 55dB or 50dB would not comply with government noise guidance for mineral developments.
“Conditions should be enforced”
After the meeting, a spokesperson for the group said:
“Although residents will be subjected to more noise in the short-term, the application to extend the time limit for work has been refused.”
He said the group had hoped to hold Cuadrilla to the original conditions. But added:
“We sent a clear message to Lancashire County Council planning committee that conditions, when approved by councillors, should be enforced.
“Lancashire County Council’s planning department needs to think very carefully about how it addresses this in future”.
The spokesperson added that the committee had been “silent” on the impact on birdlife on the Ribble Estuary, a site of European importance, meters away from Becconsall. The original 42 dB limit had been imposed partly to avoid disturbing the birds.
John Hodson, who spoke against the proposal as a local resident, said the planners had under-represented the possible increase in noise by advertising it as 55dba (an absolute limit) rather than 55db laeq (I hour) (free field), which represents an average.
Helen Rimmer, north west campaigner Friends of the Earth, who also spoke against the application, had urged the committee to defer the decision so that Natural England could be consulted. She said:
“Drilling should never have been permitted at the site in the first place, which is in green belt and close to the Ribble Estuary, an internationally important habitat for wildlife.
“Cuadrilla say they are unable to abandon and restore the site without significantly increasing the height of the rig used and the noise at the site. Whilst we want to see the site restored it is very concerning that the safeguards placed on Cuadrilla’s operations, to protect the local environment and residents, are so easily altered at their convenience and without proper assessments.
“Councillors were clearly unhappy to be put in this position by Cuadrilla, and it does not bode well for their ongoing operations in Lancashire.”
A Cuadrilla spokesperson said:
“We are pleased that today Lancashire County Council’s Development Control committee has given consent to vary one condition on our existing planning permission to plug the well and restore our Becconsall well. The new condition ensures that the noise level, as is the norm, will now be measured at the nearest residential property rather than at the red line of the site boundary and that a day time noise limit of 50dB noise limit be applied. This is in line with planning guidance on noise limits and measurement criteria. We will of course keep local residents informed on when we plan to start the restoration work.”
On the 22m rig, the spokesperson added:
“We can confirm that the 22m rig we had originally intended to use to plug the well is no longer available and to suggest we are misleading on this point is nonsensical as the higher, 32m rig is a less cost effective solution for us.”