Fracking could begin in England within a year, after Lancashire planning officials backed an application to extract shale gas for the first time since the technique was banned in 2011.
The county’s councillors are expected to follow the advice of their planning department when they vote next week on whether to allow the project, near Preston, to proceed. The development would give a significant boost to England’s shale-gas industry.
The boss of Cuadrilla, the company behind the proposal, said he was hopeful that conventional test drilling could begin on the Preston New Road site by the end of the year and that fracking could start by the middle of 2016.
Fracking is a controversial practice that releases oil or gas from shale by blasting a mixture of sand, chemicals and water into the rock.
The UK’s sole fracking site – also run by Cuadrilla in Lancashire – was shut down in 2011 after being linked to a series of earth tremors, and fracking was temporarily banned.
The Government lifted the ban towards the end of 2012 after deciding that fracking could be carried out safely but that it required strict regulatory supervision.
“It’s good news. Today is obviously important, as a positive planning recommendation is clearly a very good step,” Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, told The Independent.
But anti-fracking activists have criticised the Lancashire officials’ recommendations. Furqan Naeem, a campaigner from Friends of the Earth, said: “We are disappointed that planning officers have not recognised the unacceptable impact that Cuadrilla’s plans to frack at Preston New Road would have on local people, climate change and the environment.”
Cuadrilla also suffered a small setback as a second application – to frack on another site in the area between Blackpool and Preston – was opposed by the same planning committee. But the firm pointed out that the traffic, not the safety of the proposed drilling, was the deciding factor. “The application for each site has been accompanied by over 5,000 pages of environmental impact assessment,” said Mr Egan. “In both cases they said the plans are acceptable in all aspects that relate to drilling and fracturing. There’s been one point that they’ve taken issue with, which is traffic.”
Experts said the decision by the planning committee, to oppose one project while backing another just six miles away, suggested that local considerations are likely to take precedence over national politics when deciding which applications are approved.
Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex, said: “These planning recommendations suggest decisions about shale developments are going to be more localised than we might have thought.”
The decision is unlikely to have an impact outside of England. The Scottish Parliament controls its own fracking regulation and has imposed a ban while further research is conducted. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has responsibility for planning and has pledged to block all fracking applications.
The Government in Westminster, however, has placed fracking at the centre of its energy policy and is pushing the industry hard. Last week, The Independent revealed that the Environment Agency is proposing to fast-track fracking by doing away with the need for the public to be consulted before conventional test drilling goes ahead, although the advice of locals would be sought before any fracking occurred.