20 Mar 2014

Her Most Excellent Majesty and the fracking firm

Channel Four News has learned that planning permission to drill into shale was given to a fracking company on land owned by the Queen.

Go right, off an A-road into an unpaved lane, past the flock of deer, past the pheasants until you reach a barbed wire fence.

That’s how you find a plot of land the Queen has leased to a fracking company.

The site, near Malton in Yorkshire, has been leased by “Her Most Excellent Majesty” to the shale gas company Third Energy.

Third Energy has licences to explore large parts of the area around Malton with a view to fracking and is paying the Queen £15,000 a year for the site.

The site has been used to pump gas conventionally since 1996 – but in 2012 Third Energy got first-stage permission to drill two deep boreholes that would penetrate the shale.

They told us today:

“A conventional oil and gas site has been operating on the Duchy of Lancaster’s land at Marishes, North Yorkshire since 1996.

“We made an application to expand those operations but withdrew this application for operational reasons last year.

“The company has no plans to carry out fracking for shale gas on land being leased from the Duchy of Lancaster.”

North Yorkshire council said they had no record of the application being withdrawn and that, as per their website, permission was still granted.

No application received

The Duchy of Lancaster said it does not stand to gain financially from fracking as all oil and gas is owned by the state. It says:

“As a responsible landlord the Duchy would only consider granting licences for shale gas extraction in accordance with strict governmental policy and where the science and technology had been rigorously tested and the utmost safety assurances were in place.

“The Duchy of Lancaster has not received any applications for licences to carry out fracking on its land.”

People I spoke to in nearby Malton, a Tory voting rural town, were aware of the possibility of fracking in the area and not highly enthusiastic about having it on their doorstep.

All over Britain shale gas companies have been buying up leases on land that could potentially house fracking facilities.

Community engagement

The problem is, nobody knows the full story of where they are. The government told me it keeps a central register of exploration permits – but not a register of land held by fracking companies.

The industry body the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG) said:

“Each UKOOG Operator will engage with local communities, residents and other stakeholders at each of the three stages of operations – exploration, appraisal or production, beginning in advance of any operations and in advance of any application for planning permission.”

In other words, said a spokesperson, the first people to know of any intention to frack will be the local community.

Dan Byles MP, chair of the all-party group in Parliament, warned a conference in London yesterday that communities all over Britain could soon be waking up to find that permission has been granted on nearby land for fracking exploration.

Consultation ends this month on the fourteenth licensing round for shale gas exploration.

More sites, sooner

The industry wants – and they say the country needs – a massive hike in the number of fracking wells.

Ministers want 40 exploratory drilling sites by the end of next year and is said to be “banging the table” with the fracking companies for them to get a move on.

But planning complications and growing local opposition means the pace of growth is slow. Industry analysts Poyry say, by 2024, the planning system will need to be processing 100 sites a year and they call for a “one stop shop” – ie simpler and quicker – planning process.

Yesterday’s conference – addressed by the CEOs of IGas and Cuadrilla as well as top civil servants and industry experts – had to be held in secret, inside a British Army signals intelligence base in the City of London, because its original venue was mobbed by anti-fracking protesters.

Prominent on the protest was campaigner and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who said to the people who let their land out to frackers:

“Don’t sell your soul to the devil. You’re a criminal. Other people’s lives are at stake as well as your own.”

Energy security

The fracking industry believes this form of gas is crucial to Britain’s national security.

It could replace both Liquefied Natural Gas brought by tanker from Qatar and piped from Russia – both are sources we are set to become highly dependent on.

They believe the case for fracking has become stronger in light of the Russian annexation of Crimea and repeated threats by Vladimir Putin to switch off Europe’s gas supply. However, as one gas CEO admitted yesterday, they are losing the argument to the protesters.

So far protests have been driven by a mixture of concerns about environmental damage – water supplies, earthquakes and site pollution – based on horror stories coming out of the US experience.

Industry leaders think they can meet these concerns – but the bigger argument is around climate change.

Low carbon targets

The next IPCC report, due in April, is likely to say the UK’s already aggressive targets for carbon emissions are not enough, and that will strengthen the arguments of those who say all the effort should go on renewable energy, not new sources of gas.

The government has granted the frackers a tax cut – they’ll pay 30 per cent on extracted gas compared to 62 per cent for offshore oil and gas – and local councils who give planning permission will get 100 per cent of the business rates, as opposed to 50 per cent normally.

The top treasury official in charge of raising taxes from this industry took time out of Budget Day yesterday to tell a conference of gas executives that they were enjoying the “most competitive tax regime in Europe”.

But everybody involved knows the fourteenth licensing round is a crucial moment.

The gas companies speak of good political “alignment” – that all three major parties are signed up. But there is a massive disconnect between Labour, Liberal and Conservative sign-up, and local opposition.

What fracking needs is not just “permission to operate”, but massive positive backing from the next government.

Campaigners told me yesterday that they would set up camps wherever fracking licenses are granted