One of Britain’s top fracking firms has been accused of misleading the public over its intent to explore for shale gas in a protected area of ancient woodland in Sherwood Forest.
Ineos, a UK-based petrochemicals firm, has said publicly it would exclude sensitive areas of the legendary home of Robin Hood from its seismic surveys.
However, documents released under freedom of information rules reveal the company privately later sought and won permission from authorities to survey those areas, which involves laying small explosive charges underground.
Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, the group that obtained the documents, said: “It’s clear that Ineos will stop at nothing to explore for shale gas, even in Sherwood Forest, home of Robin Hood and one of our most cherished woodlands.
“They have misled everyone, promising publicly to spare the most ecologically sensitive parts of Sherwood Forest from their intrusive seismic surveys – while negotiating behind closed doors to press ahead with them.”
Ineos is one of the four main players exploring for oil and gas trapped below ground in shale rock across the country.
The firm has taken a robust and sometimes controversial approach to exploration, winning and defending an injunction against anti-fracking campaigners, bypassing tardy councils and appealing to authorities to force the National Trust to allow it access to their land.
In planning documents submitted to Nottinghamshire county council in May, Ineos said it would not undertake a seismic survey in a part of the forest known as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), one of 4,000 of the most important nature sites in England.
“Ineos made a commercial decision to exclude all such designated areas from the survey. The Sherwood Forest NNR, Birklands and Bilhaugh SAC, Birklands and Bilhaugh SSSI and Birklands West and Ollerton Corner SSSI (all located in Nottinghamshire) were entirely removed from the survey area,” the company said.
But just over a month later, the company sought a licence agreement with the Forestry Commission that included maps showing parts of the Birklands SSSI would be within its survey areas.
Area where Ineos told Forestry Commission it would like to undertake seismic surveys
Extent of Birkland SSSI
Guardian graphic | Source: Ineos, Defra, © OpenStreetMap contributors
Seismic surveys are used to understand the geology below the forest, and see if shale gas could be recovered. They involve the use of small explosive charges buried in holes to create seismic waves, which are monitored by recording equipment known as geophones.
As part of the licence, Ineos has agreed it is: “not to drive vehicles, set any charges, explosives or combustible equipment within 50m of any conservation site, badger set or other sensitive location (including ancient or veteran trees).”
The licence was subsequently agreed by the Forestry Commission on 5 July and signed-off by environment secretary Michael Gove.
The commission made the decision but the rubber-stamping by Gove may be seen as sitting awkwardly with his series of pro-environment plans, such as tackling plastic waste.
Ineos said despite the license agreement seeking to survey the Birklands SSSI, it would not be going ahead with a survey there. The company said its submission to the council took precedence over the Forestry Commission document.
A spokesperson said: “Ineos has clearly set out its plans for the East Midlands seismic survey which clearly state it will not survey inside SSSI designated areas. This is true for all SSSI sites including Birklands.
“Surveying will take place throughout January and will include areas close by which have been pre-walked by surveyors and ecologists to ensure continued safe operations. In the case of Birklands Wood, we have determined that no vibration points will be deployed to further protect the SSSI.”
While Ineos’s shale plans are mostly in the surveying and planning stages, other companies are further advanced.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is imminently expected to issue a green light for oil and gas company Third Energy to frack at a site in North Yorkshire. It will be the first well to be fracked in the UK since 2011.