RESIDENTS have claimed a new definition of shale gas extraction in a council document could provide a loop hole that could be exploited by the fracking industry.

Concerns that any proposals for shale gas extraction involving less than 1,000 cubic metres of water would no longer be classed as fracking, under a new policy document drawn up by North Yorkshire County Council, were among concerns raised at a meeting of the council.

The local authority’s executive committee was meeting to look at a new draft Minerals and Waste Joint Plan for North Yorkshire, York and the North York Moors National Park.

It took four years to draw up and covers policy on mining, quarrying and waste disposal.

A draft report was published in November and people were given six weeks to submit responses.

The resulting amendments to the plan were considered at Tuesday's meeting at County Hall in Northallerton.

County Councillor Elizabeth Shields told the meeting the plan appeared “pre-occupied with the interests of the fracking industry” and showed “little or no regard” for local communities or the agricultural, tourist or equestrian industries that stood to be disadvantaged by having fracking wells in their midst.

She said it also gave “insufficient weight” to the pollution of air and water, telling the committee: “I would like North Yorkshire to recognise these limitations and omissions. There should be stronger direction which eliminates risk to North Yorkshire residents and avoids the loop holes which could be exploited by the fracking industry.”

Several residents spoke of their concern that the policy document allowed fracking sites within 500 metres of residential areas and businesses.

Susan Allen said in 2012 it was established pollution from gas fields in America led to respiratory problems in residents living within 200 miles of sites, with a similar pattern for cancer rates relating to benzene and ethylbenzene. Ms Allen said explosions at US gas sites rarely affected an area less than 500 metres away.

One resident who spoke at the meeting, Paul Andrews, told the meeting: “This plan is to last until 2030. In that time if the industry is to develop as it wishes, many more areas will be covered. It will not sit easily with the residents of Harrogate, Ripon, Thirsk, Northallerton, Selby and others if in 2017 their councillors deemed 500m was a suitable distance from their community and gas wells.”

Ryedale District Councillor Mike Potter said the new definition of fracking was a crucial issue, especially with so many licences issued for shale gas exploration across the whole of North Yorkshire.

He said the council must ensure adequate protection for the environment and health of communities and to protect the future of the agricultural and tourism industries that were the bedrock of the county’s economy. He said his ward was almost entirely covered by licence blocks held by INEOS and his constituents had many concerns about the inevitability of thousands of well sites.

But the report’s author, North Yorkshire County Council officer Rob Smith said they would “continue to classify fracking as fracking”.

“We will continue to classify fracking as fracking regardless of the volume of the liquid used. The changes we’ve putting forward is to clarify the distinction between conventional gas drilling and drilling for other things such as shale gas.

“This perhaps clarifies the latest government position on that as well.”

Councillor Chris Metcalfe said: “We must do all that we can to listen to communities and respond positively to what the issues and concerns are, on the understanding it adheres to national planning guidance and a lot of other regulations."

He added: “If an application comes forward then what do we do without a plan? Simply refuse it? Then it goes to appeal and somebody else imposes their will on us. This plan won’t meet the needs of everybody but it is a balance.”

The executive voted to recommend the published waste minerals plan is sent for "examination in public", where an independent planning inspector will see if the document meets legislation and is in line with national policy.