The Australian company, Dart Energy, has been forced to postpone the start of commercial mining for coal bed methane around Airth this year because Falkirk and Stirling councils have repeatedly delayed their deadlines for taking a decision.
Until now, the delays have been agreed between the councils and the company. But in the last few weeks they have failed to reach an agreement on a new deadline, enabling Dart to appeal directly to Scottish ministers for a decision.
As many as 1,500 objections have now been lodged with the two councils against Dart’s plans. The company has applied for planning permission to sink 22 wells at 14 sites to extract up to 60 billion cubic feet of gas.
There are fears that gas could leak, water could be contaminated and public health put at risk. But the company insists that the process will be safe, and claims it has no plans to use the hotly disputed technology of fracking to get at the gas.
According to Falkirk Council, Dart had agreed to extend the timetable for deciding on its application until 7 May. But the council said: “Mutual agreement to define a further revised determination date has not been reached.”
This means that Dart now has until 7 August to appeal to the Scottish government’s planning directorate against the council’s “non-determination”. The company, which has shed 70% of its staff worldwide, is under mounting commercial pressure to get the go-ahead at Airth, regarded as its flagship project.
Dart pointed out that it had first notified the councils of its planning application for wells and processing facilities in April 2012. “At present, four months after conclusion of the statutory process, while we have no schedule towards a decision, we continue to work with Falkirk and Stirling Councils and a wide range of local communities to progress the application,” said a company spokesman.
A development plan for Airth, drawn up by Dart’s predecessor company in 2006 and released to the protest group, Frack Off, under freedom of information law, revealed anxiety about council delays. “There is a concern that local authority planning process may not be able to keep up with the required or desired pace of development,” it said.
Falkirk Council has hired consultants to review six areas of risk from the development, including “geological instability”, “methane migration” and the possible use of fracking. Because of the “complexity” of the application, it has also promised a public hearing, though not yet set a date for it.
Mary Church, campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth Scotland, argued that the councils were right to take time to consider the proposals carefully. “Yet Dart seems unwilling to give the proper democratic process the time it needs,” she said.
She accused the company of “getting desperate as the chance of getting their flagship project off the ground is crumbling”. If it went ahead “it could pave the way for climate disaster and serious public health problems,” she warned.
Friends of the Earth Scotland has invited a leading expert and campaigner against coalbed methane in Australia to Scotland this week. Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, the senior advisor to the Australian National Toxics Network, is due to be meeting MSPs, council officials and local community representatives.
Her experience with Dart and the coalbed methane industry in Australia has convinced her that Scotland should not make the same mistakes. “The industry carries far too many risks to water and air quality, to the environment and to human health,” she told The Herald.
“In Australia communities are suffering the health impacts associated with the industries’ pollution. Some of our rivers are showing environmental damage and now bubble methane, farmers are losing access to clean water and rural communities are simply being industrialised and their way of life ruined.”
Lloyd-Smith pointed out that Dart had abandoned its plans in Australia because it had been banned from drilling or fracking within two kilometres of residential areas. She warned that Dart could “make a mockery” of Scotland’s environmental regulations.
In a new planning policy launched last month, the Scottish government removed its presumption in favour of underground gas development. It urged councils to create buffer zones between the developments and local communities.