Monday saw a bit of a first in Frodsham at the Community Centre, when parish councils from around the borough attended a daytime briefing session with Ineos about their future plans to drill for shale gas.
[Ed Note - daytime session. Those with jobs - like me - were not able to attend]
Both the hall and the carpark were packed with passionate representatives, inside from small rural parishes and outside but with literally a 'mad hatters tea party" protest from the Frack Free Alliance (their 'billing' on social media not mine!)
For those of you who have been following posts on this blog site, you will know that we've long been banging on the door for open and honest dialogue with those who have Frodsham in their sights for controversial developments like fracking. A point reiterated in January 2016 when MP Graham Evans held a fracking debates at Helsby High School for Helsby and Frodsham residents. So this might be an indication that Ineos is getting the message and has taken the first step on a very long road to convincing us that this time it's going to be different?
But that is going to require some serious commitment on their behalf to convince us that it's not just a cynical attempt at engagement.
Lets not forget the legacy of their predecessor ICI. We've been left with contaminated land around and about. Then there is Ineos's own failure to work with us over air quality in Frodsham prior to their waste incinerator starting up. That's why Andrew and I insisted on having comprehensive air monitoring installed at the Manor House school car park.
This three hour meeting is apparently the start of what Ineos state will be an ongoing series of public meetings where they aim to 'explain their plans in detail with local communities with an underlying commitment to open and honest communication.'
Ineos mapped out a 2 year timeline where their goal is to establish whether sufficient reserves exist that can be economically extracted. Right now they are number crunching the seismic data gathered last year and we can expect to see a planning application made to CWaC for vertical test drilling quite soon. Assuming these tests confirm sufficient gas reserves we can expect a further application will be made for a horizontal well that will hydraulically fracture or frack to test the flow potential.
It appears that Ineos is moving far quicker than the policy machine at Cheshire West where any planning applications will be determined. Since Labour took control in May 2015 there has been little new work added to the Local Plan Part 2 where the all important detailed policies relating to this type of development should sit. The CWaC Labour manifesto pledge of a moratorium has been shown to be an unlawful empty promise and declared so by CWaC's own monitoring officer. The absence of policy at CWaC means there is little planning policy protection for us locally - a point Andrew and I and other collegues have raised frequently over the last year.
Ineos highlighted their safety record and what they say are the extremely strict regulations that apply to their areas of operation. As this is the main area of concern for most people the Q&A session was quite animated.
Again we laid down the challenge for Ineos to get out from behind the Regulator and go above-and-beyond to be a good neighbour to communities. In response to our questions about their willingness to post a bond to underwrite any environmental breaches Ineos claimed to be part of an industry wide group looking into this. Our challenge to fund an independent expert that works for the community did raise an eyebrow with them. Frodsham's air quality monitoring was initially set up using funding from Ince Resource Recover Park to buy in expertise from Lancaster University. The monitoring and data is now run by CWaC with results being streamed in the Internet. This provides an extra strand to the regulation required by the Environment Agency and others and gives us the data to be reassured or demand action as and when required.
Ineos did float their ideas for how communities might directly benefit from fracking with 6% of revenues mentioned and examples of £375m over a 20 year period. Reassuringly no one in the room got excited by this as the elephant in the room remains environmental safety and the aftercare of closed wells.
There was a lot discussed at this event and certainly the Frodsham message was that we want much more of this so everyone gets the chance to find out what's involved. Our challenge to Ineos and any others out there remains unchanged - if fracking poses little risk to us as is claimed - prove it! ...Agree to 'gold plated' regulation;backed up by your billions "just in case" ;work with the community, don't take us for fools. Build your case, share your evidence, allow full challenge and scrutiny agree that the locals should have a decisive say as to whether these proposals should proceed.
Andrew will be arguing for strong planning policy protection at the 16 May meeting of CWaC's local development plan working group meeting.