Agenda item

Motion from Full Council – Fracking

To consider the following motion, (756), referred to the Environment and Communities Scrutiny Committee by Full Council at its meeting on 23 October 2015.

 

Motion 756 – Fracking (Unconventional Hydrocarbons)

 

Proposed by Cllr Barry Kirby

Seconded by Cllr Lesley Williams

 

This Council believes that climate change is real and that it is a serious problem that affects our communities. We note fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) adds to climate change.

 

This Council further notes the recent protests against shale gas drilling outside Shire Hall.

 

This Council notes there are areas now available in Gloucestershire particularly the Forest of Dean for fracking. This Council also recognises the instability of the geology in the Forest of Dean. Furthermore this Council acknowledges that the process poses a significant risk to the local environment due to the unknown and commercially hidden information about the extraction process.

 

This Council resolves to write to the Secretary of State to remove the licensing areas within Gloucestershire with immediate effect.

 

Minutes:

At the Gloucestershire County Full Council meeting on 23 October 2015, councillors referred Motion 756, detailing concerns relating to the impact of fracking, (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas), on Climate Change and the Forest of Dean, to this committee to consider.

 

Details of the motion are recorded below:-

 

Motion 756 – Fracking (Unconventional Hydrocarbons)

 

Proposed by Cllr Barry Kirby; Seconded by Cllr Lesley Williams

 

This Council believes that climate change is real and that it is a serious problem that affects our communities. We note fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) adds to climate change.

 

This Council further notes the recent protests against shale gas drilling outside Shire Hall.

 

This Council notes there are areas now available in Gloucestershire particularly the Forest of Dean for fracking.

 

This Council also recognises the instability of the geology in the Forest of Dean. Furthermore this Council acknowledges that the process poses a significant risk to the local environment due to the unknown and commercially hidden information about the extraction process.

 

This Council resolves to write to the Secretary of State to remove the licensing areas within Gloucestershire with immediate effect.

 

Seeking a way forward on how best to consider the motion, the committee requested an ‘all member briefing’ be provided at 10.00 am on 13 January 2016, followed by the planned committee meeting at the slightly later start time of 1.30 pm. The aim of the briefing was to assist committee members in their understanding of issues relating to hydraulic fracturing and other energy extraction options, (unconventional hydrocarbons), before debating the council motion at the Environment and Communities Scrutiny Committee meeting the same day.

 

Having received in-depth presentations from the Director for Minerals and Waste and Director for Groundwater Science at the British Geological Survey, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, (Oil and Gas Policy and Hazardous Installations Directorate), the committee considered the motion in detail, including the changes in circumstance since considered at the council meeting in October 2015.

 

Prior to the debate, members received a short overview on the council’s role as Minerals Planning Authority and its current position in terms of development of the Minerals Local Plan. Members were advised that the intention was for the council to undergo further public consultation on the draft plan, which will be presented to Cabinet and Full Council later in the year.

 

Having noted the minutes from the previous meeting, including confirmation that the committee could make a formal submission to the public consultation on the Minerals Local Plan, members sought clarification on the process for consultation, and enquired whether it would receive sight of the draft plan before making its submission. Officers stated that, in addition to members making individual submissions to the public consultation, there would also be an opportunity for the committee and/or public to comment on the draft plan before presentation of the report to Cabinet.

 

At the previous meeting, members had been informed that, as the ‘Minerals Planning Authority’, the council was required to determine any future planning applications for potential ‘hydraulic fracturing’ projects across Gloucestershire.

 

Included in the update in the Commissioning Director’s Report for this meeting, (item 7 of the agenda), it had been reported that the consultation on the Habitats Regulations Assessment for the 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round covering several parts of England had closed. In September 2015, officers from Gloucestershire County Council had submitted a response to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, (DECC), recommending that a more expansive caveat be applied to any licences to be issued.

 

Acknowledging the changes in circumstance since consideration of the motion at the full council meeting in October 2015, notably that the DECC had announced licences for 159 areas in the UK, including 5 licences across Gloucestershire, the committee concluded that, in its original form, the proposal, ‘for the council to write to the Secretary of State to remove the licensing areas within Gloucestershire’ was no longer applicable. Several members believed, however, there was still merit in the council writing to the Secretary of State.

 

One member suggested the original motion be referred back to full council, whilst others felt this would only delay the consideration process. Another member suggested the motion be amended to propose that the council write to the Secretary of State requesting that the government halt the process of exploration for hydraulic carbons in Gloucestershire. Reflecting on the recommendations made at the Paris Climate Change Summit in December 2015, other members expressed concern about the impact of underground energy exploration on climate change and stated that they were opposed to fracturing.   

 

Reflecting on circumstances affecting authorities in other parts of the country, members with dual roles on the Planning Committee expressed concern that, as the Minerals Planning Authority for Gloucestershire, it was necessary to avoid taking action that might incur the risk of a judicial review or a call-in of a decision by the Secretary of State. With this in mind, several members stated that they would be abstaining from making potentially compromising decisions to avoid being perceived as taking a pre-determined view.   

 

Questioning the feasibility of considering methane fracturing in the Forest of Dean, Cllr Graham Morgan, Gloucestershire County Councillor for Cinderford, spoke at length on the history of underground energy extraction in the Forest of Dean. Cllr Morgan stated that there was ‘no history of methane in the Forest of Dean coalfield and no explosions recorded’. Furthermore, ‘mines in the house coal and steam coal series that had relied on naked lights and other combustible materials, surely indicated an absence of the gas known as Firedamp’.

 

Cllr Morgan informed the committee that, ‘most of the Forest of Dean obtained its drinking water supplies from the iron mine system on the east side of the forest and from other ground water supplies’. Expressing concern that the water supplies within the Forest of Dean area could be compromised by hydraulic fracturing, and should be classified as a ground water protection zone, Cllr Morgan further elaborated on why he believed the area was an unsuitable location for exploration. Cllr Morgan also expressed concern about the high rates of cancer in the Forest of Dean area, as compared with other parts of the country, and the extensive ‘geological faulting’ occurring in the Forest of Dean. Taking all of these factors into consideration, Cllr Morgan questioned whether the information had been taken into account when issuing licences for the Forest of Dean.

 

Seeking advice on the committee’s role as a scrutiny committee, members were advised that, as a non-executive decision-making body, the committee could only write to the Secretary of State as the Environment and Communities Scrutiny Committee, and not on behalf of Gloucestershire County Council. It could, however, make a recommendation ‘that the council write to the Secretary of State’, a proposal that could be processed through the regular scrutiny committee reporting process to the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee, and later, to Full Council.

 

Commissioning Director: Communities and Infrastructure referred to the evidence provided at the member briefing earlier that day and suggested this information be used to convey the committee’s view if writing to the Secretary of State.

 

Expressing mixed views, several members believed it should be the council sending a strong message to the government by writing to the Secretary of State to propose a halt to the exploration of hydraulic carbons in Gloucestershire. Other members made it clear they did not support this proposal.

 

Seeking the overall view of the committee, Chairman of the Committee, Cllr Rob Bird, clarified the position, before seeking consensus on the suggestion that the committee make a recommendation to full council. The majority of members indicated their support for this proposal, with one member of the committee requesting that the recommendation include a request for an individual geological survey of the Forest of Dean area and avoid the risk of independent organisations seeking licenses in the future.

 

Acknowledging the changes in circumstance since first consideration of the motion at the council meeting in October 2015, and with the support of the majority of members, it was agreed the committee would make a recommendation to full council proposing that the Council write to the Secretary of State requesting a halt to the exploration of hydraulic carbons across Gloucestershire. The recommendation was presented at the Full Council meeting on 17 February 2016.