Britain's fledgling shale-gas industry has a won a major victory that could open the door to widespread fracking across the country.
Last week, the North Yorkshire council voted to allow London-based Third Energy to use hydraulic fracturing at an existing conventional drilling site near the village of Kirby Misperton, in the district of Ryedale northeast of York. The decision marked the first approval for a fracking operation since 2011, when the process was shut down after it was blamed for causing two minor earthquakes.
The council approved the application by a 7-to-4 margin despite widespread local opposition. More than 3,000 submissions were made against the project, which is close to a national park, compared to 34 in favour. Hundreds of opponents turned out during two days of public hearings and every local parish in the area objected.
"This has been a very difficult decision for the council to make and we know it is a difficult decision for the people of this county," said the council's chief executive Richard Flinton. He added that the council believes the fracking can be done safely and that the decision only pertains to one well.
"I am shocked and dismayed," said Ian Conlan of Frack Free Ryedale, which is considering a legal challenge. 'It would appear they weren't listening."
Analysts and anti-fracking campaigners believe the council's decision has set a precedent for other local authorities to follow and it will give the shale-gas industry a huge boost. "The industry will feel buoyed by the fact that shale is up and running again after a five-year hiatus," Michael Bradshaw, a professor of global energy at the University of Warwick, wrote in a recent commentary. "Other companies are waiting in the wings."
Fracking has been a divisive issue in Britain for years as the country grapples with dwindling gas production from the North Sea. Britain started importing natural gas in 2004 and by some estimates the country could be importing 75 per cent of its gas by 2030. The Conservative government has championed shale gas as a key part of the country's energy future with Prime Minister David Cameron saying he was "going all out for shale." The government recently approved 93 exploration licences and there are estimates that up to 75,000 jobs could be created.
The British Geological Survey has estimated that there are substantial gas reserves, particularly in a deposit known as Bowland Hodder, which stretches across the middle of England. In its latest review. the agency doubled its estimate of onshore natural gas to 1,300 trillion cubic feet, enough to meet the country's needs for more than 40 years.
Fracking has faced fierce opposition in Britain and across Europe. France, Germany, Bulgaria, Scotland and Wales have banned fracking and British environmental groups have successfully shut down several well sites through protest camps. These groups argue that along with environmental concerns, such as water pollution and earthquakes, Britain's population is too congested for safe fracking. They point out that the Kirby Misperton well is just 300 metres from a house and less than a kilometre from the village.
The vote in North Yorkshire has opened a new front in the battle.
The gas industry has four other projects in the late-approval stages and analysts say the North Yorkshire decision will embolden the industry to press ahead. The share price of IGas Energy Plc, one the few publicly traded energy companies in Britain involved in shale gas, jumped 25 per cent to 20 pence on London's Alternative Investment Market, or AIM, last week before pulling back slightly.
But groups like Friends of the Earth, Frack Free Ryedale and others have begun to fight back. Last week, they launched a People's Declaration that called for "no fracking anywhere" and vowed to "continue to fight to remain free from fracking." Others have said the North Yorkshire decision was a "declaration of war."