They just lied to us say locals: ROBERT HARDMAN on the landmark decision to grant fracking in North Yorkshire
Up until now, the wider world might have associated this countryside with James Herriot’s charming veterinary tales or Brideshead Revisited.
As of last night, North Yorkshire has a new claim to fame – and it’s closer to a plotline from Dallas.
For councillors representing one of the most stunning parts of the UK yesterday elected to make the area the frontline of Britain’s fracking industry.
While furious locals denounced the decision as ‘an affront to democracy’ – North Yorkshire County Council had received 4,000 objections to the plan and only 32 letters of support – the Government will be delighted.
The Rt Rev Graham Cray, left, pictured with the Rev Jackie Cray, right, who lives in Kirby Misperton, said he was 'appalled' by the industrialisation when he toured fracking fields in the US
According to ministers and the fracking industry, this is a multi-billion pound enterprise which will keep the lights on in Britain when all else fails. To its opponents, it’s pure planet-poisoning vandalism.
So you had to feel sorry for the members of North Yorkshire’s planning committee, chaired by a local farmer, last night as they had to pass judgement on one of the most divisive issues of our times – in the full knowledge that the prospects of an entire industry rested in the balance.
For energy analysts had been warning that would-be investors were losing interest in Britain’s fledgling shale gas industry. Thus far, Britain has had one attempt at fracking – in 2011.
It resulted in a tiny earthquake below Blackpool and a rather larger one above ground in the form of protests, riots and a temporary ban on further fracking.
Though that ban has subsequently been lifted in England, an application to resume fracking in Lancashire has been thrown out and is the subject of an appeal. So a lot was hanging on last night’s vote in Yorkshire.
For two days, local residents and eco-activists had mounted a noisy protest outside the council’s Northallerton HQ.
Inside, the 11-strong committee had to decide whether to allow fracking beneath the village of Kirby Misperton in the district of Ryedale.
Before them sat a 252-page report from the council’s own planning officials which recommended approval – in line with Government policy.
Finally, after many passionate – and some tearful – contributions, the Conservative-controlled committee voted by a margin of 7-4 to allow the applicant, Third Energy, to go ahead and frack.
Protesters, pictured, were left devastated by the decision, which could open up rural England to drilling
According to Third Energy, there is nothing to worry about. According to many locals, though, a swathe of stunning countryside faces desecration.
Just to the west of the site sit the Yorkshire Dales. Castle Howard, the location for TV’s Brideshead Revisited, is just up the road.
Downton Abbey, though filmed in the Home Counties, is set in these parts.
So what is at stake? Third Energy says it merely wants to conduct exploratory fracking on a site, known as KM8, which already produces conventional gas.
Quite apart from concerns about earthquakes, locals warn initial heavy lorry traffic and noise could be a catalyst for years of upheaval across the region.
For the energy company has already said if this exercise is successful, then there could be much more of the same.
‘Does Yorkshire want to forfeit the title of God’s Own County? Because we are facing the remorseless industrialisation of Ryedale,’ says local landowner and farmer Sir Richard Storey, a passionate campaigner against the plan.
Not so, argues Third Energy. ‘The disruption to normal routines should not be significant,’ says its glossy brochure.
Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing – the process of drilling deep down below the water table to a shale deposit, blasting it open and pumping out the shale gas which that produces.
More than 150 new fracking licences have recently been awarded across England, in addition to a parliamentary green light for fracking under our national parks.
After last night’s result, there will be fresh impetus behind the industry.
Campaigners say the controversial drilling technique causes contamination and noise problems
They also say the crash in world oil prices has made fracking 'economic lunacy', says Robert Hardman
Opponents cite past experience in the United States to argue that it can cause earthquakes, water contamination and nightmares for those living nearby.
Besides, they say, the crash in world oil prices has made fracking economic lunacy.
Here in North Yorkshire, relations between the frackers and the locals have been dismal.
Residents point to a public meeting back in 2014 when Third Energy’s agents assured a town hall gathering the firm had no plans for fracking.
‘What the company said they were going to do and what they have applied to do are entirely different,’ says the Rt Rev Graham Cray, a former bishop who lives in Kirby Misperton and has toured the fracking fields of North America.
He says he was appalled by the industrialisation he found there.
A Third Energy spokesman is adamant that the company has ‘consulted openly and widely with local residents’.
The proposed fracking site is down a muddy public footpath on farmland half a mile from the village.
It sits next to a conventional platform which has been pumping conventional gas out of the ground for many years without incident.
But the fracking plans have required a new extension to accommodate a drilling rig and storage equipment.
A smart new green security fence has been built all the way around the existing security fence. Clearly, they are expecting trouble.
In theory, if the tests yield enough shale gas for viable production, then the energy company will take away the fracking kit and leave unobtrusive pumps to bring up the gas as usual. But opponents point out that shale creates ‘unconventional’ gas.
In North Yorkshire, pictured, relations between the frackers and the locals have been 'dismal'
Most wells, they say, can lose up to 75 per cent of their output after a year. In which case, the company will either need to ‘refrack’ or drill a new well to keep the original investment going.
As a result, all the lorries, all the kit and all the mess would then need to be repeated. And so it goes on year after year.
Alarmist Nimbyism? The frackers certainly think so, pointing out that new technology means that future wells will not require continuous ‘refracking’.
But the campaigners say otherwise. Sir Richard explains that he had never worried about fracking until he consulted some friends in the Taranaki district of New Zealand.
In 2007, they were told that a single fracking well was to be drilled near their home, involving a handful of transport movements.
By 2013, there were dozens of wells and lorry traffic had increased 1,000 per cent.
‘It’s horrific,’ he says, pointing to photographs of the site. Retired chemicals executive Frank Colenso has devoted the past two years to fighting fracking in Ryedale.
He explains how the maths fails to add up, arguing that falling oil prices have left the US shale gas industry in debt to the tune of $220billion.
‘Speculators want to find gas, sell on and get out,’ he says.
There are powerful arguments on both sides. A lot of the scarier anti-fracking stories from the Green lobby have turned out to be wrong.
And the UK does need to be more self-sufficient if we do not want to depend on the likes of Vladimir Putin to keep us warm.
Either way, last night’s decision in Northallerton is not an end to the matter. It’s just the start.
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