The Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) announced on 18 December 2015 that the Operators that had been offered Petroleum Exploration Development Licences (PEDLs) under the second tranche of the 14th Onshore Licencing Round. Having accepted your Licence, we know you will be looking to undertake further geological investigation, assess work programmes and investment opportunities, and after that you have a minefield of planning polices and environmental legislation to wade through. We understand the importance of ensuring the expedient and cost-effective delivery of your projects even more so given the current climate. Here, we consider the land, planning and environmental challenges Operators face including site selection, community engagement and, possibly most important of all, factoring in season-specific ecological surveys.
You may or may not be aware that to be valid, ecological surveys have to be undertaken at certain times of the year predominantly between March and August. Missing the survey window means that you will not have robust, accurate ecological data as evidence to rely on in assessing your scheme. Where an ecology survey is required, which can be for full planning applications or Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) development, a Minerals Planning Authority (MPA) may refuse to register and validate an application without this information. This means that you have to wait until the following year to obtain your data, causing significant project delays. Equally, if an MPA has requested additional ecological information following submission of an application, you would still need to wait for the remaining data for the MPA to determine your application unless you can negotiate a resolution to grant planning permission. As we recently reported in our earlier blog, given that the OGA established a second tranche of Licences for those, which required further environmental assessment under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2010), it is safe to say that those 132 PEDLs in more environmentally sensitive locations are more than likely going to require some form of ecological assessment.
So, how can you avoid project delays before choosing your site? We would recommend appointing an ecologist as soon as possible (preferably before March) to undertake a Phase 1 Habitat Survey, which can be undertaken at any time of the year (although the optimum survey period is May to September). A Phase 1 Habitat Survey is a standardised reporting system used to identify semi-natural vegetation and potential wildlife habitats, and can be used over a large area i.e. in a general area of interest prior to identifying your final site and signing up the landowner. The survey is a basic assessment that will provide you with an indication of the potential ecological value of the local area. With that information, you can establish with your ecologist the likely scope of any further ecological works, and you can also try to locate your site away from any more sensitive designations, species or habitats such as badger setts or waterbodies suitable for newts.
Any follow-up ecological surveys will look to confirm the presence of species in the area, their number, habitat locations, the potential significance of any effects as a result of your proposed development and, finally, ways to minimise or design out potential effects. It is also important to note that it is not just designated sites that can be important habitats, undesignated sites, which may be undisturbed and overgrown, can also be valuable to species. Doing this survey work early on can be beneficial in terms of time, costs, design issues and environmental protection.
As planning consultants, when undertaking site selection assessments for our clients we will refer to any available ecological survey work to produce a robust assessment. However, there are other land restrictions and designations you need to look out for including Common Land, existing underground infrastructure such as pipelines, and the availability of information on the Land Registry including any restrictive covenants. Community consultation is another important factor early on in the application process and we would recommend producing a simple website that is clear about your company and operations. We would also encourage you to engage in an early meeting with the MPA.
Whilst we don’t want to badger you about it, there’s no ducking out of ecological surveys, and assessing the ecological sensitivity of an area early on can help to deliver a more timely development.
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Oil & Gas, Energy, 14th Licensing Round