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Burning issues
Planning – 14 August 2009

The emergence of coal bed methane as a potential power source has caught policy-makers on the hop and individual authorities are having to react fast in deciding their stance, Mark Smulian reveals.

Coal bed methane (CBM) is not a subject familiar to most planners. Until last year, few in the power industry had tried to tap this source of natural gas. But in former coalfields - and in other areas that were never exploited for mining - proposals will soon be landing in planning departments' in-trays.

Methane is found in areas where coal was not mined because it was unsafe or uneconomic to do so. It was certainly not viable to extract the gas in the days of cheap imports. But it is now. Ministers are keen to use it to reduce the UK's dependency on imported gas and declining North Sea reserves. They believe that it could eventually meet some ten per cent of our energy needs.

So far, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has licensed extraction across 700,000ha of old coalfields. Licences do not imply government subsidy and do not grant planning permission, they just allow prospecting. But methane exploitation will affect planners, both by inclusion in planning policy and by prompting proposals for rigs to pump gas.

In planning terms, CBM is something of an anomaly. It is often accommodated in minerals policies, yet it is not quarried like an aggregate but rather pumped like onshore oil. Renewable energy policies do not cover it, because it is a finite resource. It could take up to 25 years to exploit some of the stocks and planning policy needs to cater for long-term production.

Geddes Consulting director Bob Salter, who is working with licence holders Centrica and Composite Energy, explains the problems he has found. "CBM tends to end up in minerals planning, where policy was not really designed for this. It is more like onshore oil and gas extraction. It is really part of energy supply and belongs to a different policy framework from minerals. For example, operators are not extracting anything that needs large plant and removal by heavy trucks."

There is a further problem, says Salter. "The challenge is to get CBM into several councils' plans because gas does not respect local boundaries. Neither do the areas licensed by DECC. If you are farming a resource 1km below the ground you have to follow the gas, so a consistent approach between councils would be useful. The best way is to link with groups of local authorities so they can be confident about the impact."

The potential for onshore gas extraction is flagged up in the Scottish Government's revised national planning framework. Salter says this has proved helpful in getting CBM accepted into local plans. "Our experience in Scotland and Wales is good. We have got local authorities together and they can be very supportive," he reports.

However, arguments over the weight to be given to the benefits of exploiting CBM are leading to policy-making conflict. Like other parts of central Scotland, Falkirk has deep coal reserves with potential for methane extraction. A number of permissions for test drilling have been issued, although production has yet to start.

Falkirk Council decided that its existing minerals policy could handle applications from Composite Energy, which holds a licence for exploration and development in parts of the district. The firm argued that Falkirk's local plan should contain a specific, positive reference to CBM development. In evidence to this spring's local plan inquiry, the council responded: "CBM extraction is regarded as a minerals activity and therefore considered to fall under the remit of these policies."

Following objections from Composite, the council agreed to insert a sentence into its policy acknowledging the potential for extraction. But it is resisting the company's request for a policy that it considers would amount to a presumption in favour. "Without clear government support to delineate potential development areas or more proactive development plan policies, no further changes should be made," it told the reporter.

Objections to CBM tend to focus on environmental factors such as noise and landscape damage, but Salter claims that the effects are slight. "The environmental impact is very benign," he insists. "It will typically be a wellhead on a site of about 0.3ha. The exact location is flexible, so if an area is sensitive it can normally be avoided. Sites are restored after extraction."

RTPI minerals adviser Tim Greenwood, a former county planner for Hampshire, accepts that drilling for gas opens up issues relating to the area's suitability and noise. "Generally speaking, this has been dealt with by the industry through better acoustic approaches and the drilling is relatively short-term," he says.

"For actual power generation, the beauty of CBM is that processing need not take place at the drilling site. Gas can be collected to convert into electricity elsewhere."

Greenwood recalls that there was public opposition when onshore oil drilling began in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey in the 1980s. "But it soon became obvious that the impact of installations and noise was very minor," he says. He thinks that planning authorities should be receptive. "There is policy in MPS1 to encourage this and it says councils should have CBM policies in their local development frameworks where relevant."

Gas giant Centrica holds licences for an area in south Wales covering Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerphilly County Borough Councils. The company must start development work by 2014 and is surveying the area to find the best drill locations. "We are in talks with each authority and CBM is not something currently in local development plans," says corporate affairs manager Rhys Jones. "Councils treat it as a mineral, but so far they have been very supportive in their response and there is an element of flexibility."

Independent firm Reach Coal Seam Gas has licences in central Scotland. Managing director Graham Dean says councils can be a bit unsure about CBM "because it is new and they want to know what it is and what it involves".

He describes the process: "Drilling wells pump out the water and then the gas. The rigs are between 8m and 18m tall and can bore in different directions from a fixed point, diagonally or horizontally along the coal seam. But they must be moved around the site to exploit it fully."

One attraction for councils, he suggests, is that the industry has some modest semi-skilled job creation potential in areas of high unemployment. "It is also a local source of energy that can be sold to the grid or to local firms," he says. "It is more environmentally friendly because energy does not have to be used to liquefy the gas or ship it from Qatar and other places. UK transmission costs are also avoided."

CBM looks set to grow in importance in the next few years and planners will be under pressure to ease its path. In the longer term, councils outside the former coalfields may see such applications. Berkshire, Oxfordshire and the far east of Yorkshire are among the places with coal deposits that are uneconomic for deep mining, although licences have yet to be handed out. But as energy security becomes more important, proposals to bore for methane in some of the choicer parts of the Thames Valley are a distinct possibility.

Keele University

Planning authorities with coal bed methane on their patch have adopted pragmatic approaches. Keele University is the slightly improbable site of two test boreholes for a scheme that forms part of its strategy to become carbon-neutral within a decade.

Staffordshire County Council granted gas company Nexen permission for the project in April. Its environment and countryside unit had no overriding objections and considered the proposal to be "in overall conformity with environmental and sustainability policies set out in the minerals local plan".

Nexen enjoyed support from Staffordshire's economic development team. It decided that the university would be seen as maximising the potential energy resources available and the project would place it "in the forefront of promoters of sustainable resource usage". However, Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council objected on the grounds of noise and possible pollution of water sources.

Doe Green, Warrington

In May, Island Gas announced that it had carried out the first generation of electricity from coal bed methane in the UK at its Doe Green site in Warrington. Electricity from the pilot scheme alone should be sufficient to power around 1,200 homes and Island expects the flow of electricity to rise steadily.

John Groves, development services manager at Warrington Borough Council, says dealing with the Doe Green proposal did not require amendments to its policy on minerals. "When we look at the local development framework and core strategy over the next 12 months, we will consider it alongside minerals then," he says.

"There was no planning gain involved," he adds. "Island said it would generate cheaper power but the scheme was not sold to us on the back of job creation. However, it is consistent with government policy to exploit this asset and I expect some other schemes of this type to come along."