Cheshire West and Chester Council didn’t ask for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) before granting consent for underground gas drilling near a population centre, a nuclear facility and oil refinery.

Campaigners were aghast on hearing EIAs were not required when permission was granted for coal bed methane (CBM) production at Ince Marshes and Ellesmere Port.

There are fears about possible water contamination and so-called fracking – a process linked to earth tremors in the shale gas industry. Both IGas sites are close to residential areas, the Mersey estuary, the Capenhurst nuclear facility and Essar oil refinery.

Protesters from Upton, Farndon and Malpas gathered at the council HQ in Chester to listen to an all-party working group developing the authority’s policy on unconventional gas extraction.

Campaigner Matt Bryan asked members: “Why is it that an environmental impact assessment is not required for CBM given its potential negative impacts on the environment?”

Mr Bryan pointed out that during the exploratory phase, IGas had drilled deeper at Ince Marshes than was necessary to examine the coal bed seam, in what he believes is a search for shale gas, which is reliant on the fracking process.

“CWaC stated that this was the British Geological Survey’s responsibility to enforce, while the British Geological Survey has confirmed in writing that this would be CWaC’s. This is just one example of the regulatory muddle.

“Given IGas is a stone’s throw from one of Europe’s largest petrochemical industries and a nuclear refinement facility, should residents be worried about potential apocalyptic consequences of an earthquake in the area?”

Council planning officer Rod Brookfield was asked why environmental impact assessments were not required in the two cases given permission for CBM production, to which he responded: “If you take sand quarries, you might be looking at an area of 124 hectares, so that’s a massive area of land which has had an impact upon it. On these sites we are looking at less than half a hectare and then we are looking at the drilling operations only, for exploratory drilling.

““We do not have sufficient information for extraction of shale gas and we do not have yet sufficient information for the extraction of coal bed methane for us to make further opinion.”

IGas says it is only gathering geological data at the moment. Seismic activity at any stage would be negligible. Discussions had taken place with local stakeholders, including companies, many of whom welcomed the jobs and investment future operations may bring.

Essar did not wish to comment. Urenco spokesman Neil Fagan at the Capenhurst nuclear plant said IGas had given a presentation and his company did not currently have a position on operations but was working with Salford University to establish the facts.

Susan Burt from Upton, Chester, joined campaigners wearing a face mask because her body reacts to volatile organic compounds like car fumes, chlorine, perfume and cigarettes and fears fracking will increase the number of sufferers.

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