Local councils could lose their right to block large scale gas fracking projects around Britain, it emerged tonight, as the Government gave the green light for the resumption of onshore drilling.
Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, announced that he was giving the go-ahead for exploratory fracking to resume after an 18-month moratorium. More than 60 per cent of Britain has potential shale gas reserves, which some ministers believe will herald an energy “revolution”.
But conservation groups have expressed alarm at the Government’s plans and warned that under legislation currently going through Parliament, local councils could lose their right to decide whether fracking should take place in their communities.
As part of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the Government is consulting on plans to exempt large scale onshore gas projects from local planning procedures. Instead these would be fast-tracked by the Government as “nationally significant infrastructure projects” and be decided upon by ministers.
If the move is passed, conservation groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) fear it could be used to rail-road unpopular projects through despite local objections. The definition of what a “large scale onshore gas project” is could also be changed at a later date by ministers.
“Our concern is that this legislation could allow ministers, rather than the communities affected, to decide which big fracking projects can and can’t go ahead,” said Paul Miner, Senior Planning Officer at the CPRE. “The Government doesn’t appear to have recognised the potential for major landscape damage, or the need to properly consider this at the local level. If fracking is to happen, it must be with the support of local communities, who are most at risk if things go wrong, and without damaging the countryside.”
Drilling for shale gas was suspended 18 months ago after the process, which uses high-pressure liquid to split rock and extract gas, caused two small earthquakes in Blackpool. But Mr Davey said it was now safe to resume exploration with tough new environmental controls to reduce the risk of seismic activity.
Environmentalists have warned that a continued reliance on gas will prevent the UK from meeting its targets to cut emissions and tackle climate change, and that shale has no place in the move to a low-carbon economy. But Mr Davey said shale gas represented a “promising new potential energy resource”.
“It is essential that its development should not come at the expense of local communities or the environment,” he said. “Fracking must be safe, and the public must be confident that it is safe. We are strengthening the stringent regime already in place with new controls around seismic risks.”
The controls will include a traffic light system, requiring operators to stop if seismic activity reaches magnitude 0.5 - well below an earthquake that could be felt at the surface, but higher than normal fracking levels.
Cuadrilla Resources, currently the only company to have started exploration of shale gas in the UK, says reserves in Lancashire could supply a quarter of the UK gas demand in the future.“Today’s news is a turning point for the country’s energy future,” said chief executive Francis Egan.