Fast-track fracking plan by the government prompts criticism

‘Exploratory drilling will be as easy as building a garden wall or conservatory’ – Greenpeace

Fracking opponents have reacted with anger after ministers unveiled measures to help projects through the planning system in England, which campaigners said would make drilling a shale well as easy as building a conservatory.

Shale gas explorers will be able to drill test sites in England without applying for planning permission and fracking sites could be classed as nationally significant infrastructure, meaning approval would come at a national rather than local level.

Planning authorities will also be given £1.6m to speed up fracking applications over the next two years and a new shale environmental regulator will be created this summer, under government proposals published on Thursday.

Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, said the plans were shocking. “Britain’s fracking experiment was on life support and now the government is trying its best to shock it back into life.”

Rebecca Long Bailey MP, shadow business secretary, said: “Fracking should be banned, not promoted.”

Greenpeace said the government had turned a deaf ear to communities and councils, and would make “exploratory drilling as easy as building a garden wall or conservatory”.

The progress of fracking in the UK has been glacial, with not a single well fracked since a ban was lifted in 2013.

Companies including Ineos, Cuadrilla and Third Energy have been bogged down in planning battles with local authorities. In the first three months of the year, seven of eight shale drilling plans were rejected by councils.

However, under plans outlined by the business secretary, Greg Clark, the drilling of shale wells in England will be considered permitted development, meaning no planning application is required.

The actual process of fracking, which involves pumping water at high pressure underground to fracture rocks and release gas trapped within, would still need an application.

Clark said the UK had a duty to look at fracking as North Sea gas production declined and the country became more reliant on imports.

“We believe that it is right to utilise our domestic gas resources to the maximum extent and exploring further the potential for onshore gas production from shale rock formations in the UK, where it is economically efficient, and where environment impacts are robustly regulated,” he said.

The business secretary said new measures were necessary because councils in England had been “disappointingly slow” to take decisions on shale applications.

The Local Government Association said it welcomed extra funding to deal with applications but opposed allowing shale applications to bypass local planning.

“We are clear that it should be up to local communities to decide whether or not to host fracking operations in their areas,” said environment spokesperson, councillor Judith Blake.

The package of actions to help fracking firms pass through the planning system is an admission that previous government efforts to help the industry have failed.

In 2015, the government announced it would step in if councils failed to take decisions within 16 weeks.

However, the industry said recently it was taking 18 months to get a planning decision from local authorities, up from around four months in 2014-15.

The shale industry welcomed the government’s proposals. “Today’s announcement goes some way to ensuring that our energy security is protected and the benefits we have already seen flowing into communities become much more widespread,” said Ken Cronin, chief executive of Ukoog.

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