The decision by North Yorkshire County Council on 23 May 2016 to approve Third Energy’s recommended planning application, which included a proposal for hydraulic fracturing, marks the first approved application of this type since 2011. The decision is likely not only to trigger the recommencement of the mission to establish a UK unconventional hydrocarbon market, but also to reopen the debate on whether shale exploration and eventual production is compatible with public opinion. 

The planning application involved a proposal by Third Energy to utilise an existing well, originally drilled in 2013, for re-exploration and appraisal. Details of the proposed scheme involved utilising the process known as hydraulic fracturing, in order to explore for hydrocarbon deposits contained within tighter geologic formations, such as shales. On 13 May 2016, the planning officer for North Yorkshire Council recommended the application by Third Energy be granted approval by the Council’s planning committee. The Council met on 23 May 2016 and approved the application with a split of 7 to 4. 

A planning officer’s recommendation is not always a signal that an application will be approved. In the case of Cuadrilla’s recent application for a similar approval to Lancashire County Council (see our previous Law-Now here) its application was approved by the planning officer but rejected by the planning committee. That decision is now being reviewed on appeal by the Secretary for State for Local Communities and Government with a decision due imminently. 

Although a positive step forward for the recommencement of shale gas exploration in the UK onshore market, the split decision of the Council and the presence of hundreds of protesters at the Council’s meeting still demonstrates how precarious a UK unconventionals industry is. That being said, this decision and the recommendation by the planning officer in Cuadrilla’s case, indicates that a good quality planning application that complies with all necessary recommendations and planning conditions does stand a good chance of approval under the Government’s new planning guidelines. 

It is unlikely that this decision will create a precedent for future applications. However, it is hoped that with Third Energy’s assurances that it sees the decision as “a responsibility to deliver on its promises, not a victory” this approval will allow it to demonstrate UK onshore players are committed to developing an unconventional exploration and production industry, involving hydraulic fracturing where necessary, in a safe and manageable way. With a successful and safe exploration campaign, perhaps some of the protesters’ key concerns will be allayed.