David Cameron’s has been accused of abandoning his pledge to make Britain the “most beautiful country in the world” after the Government approved a raft of new licences for onshore oil and gas exploration.
Environmental campaigners warned that the 93 licences granted to explore 159 blocks of land could open up large swathes of the country to fracking and will put the UK’s top beauty hotspots in danger.
Three national parks and five areas of the UK designated for their “outstanding natural beauty” could be affected, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).
Three quarters of the blocks relate to the unconventional shale oil or gas exploration.
The decision by the regulator – the Oil and Gas Authority – comes a day after MPs approved fracking for shale gas 1,200m below national parks and “areas of natural beauty” (AONBs)
The national parks that could be affected are the North York Moors, the Peak District and Exmoor.
Meanwhile the AONBs affected are the Forest of Bowland, in Lancashire and North Yorkshire, the Lincolnshire Wolds, Dorset, Cranborne Chase in southern England and the Howardian Hills in Yorkshire.
Companies wanting to go ahead with fracking for commercial means must first prove that doing so would be safe and environmentally friendly by conducting checks, but campaigners argue they are not sufficiently tough.
Emma Marrington, rural policy campaigner at the CPRE, said the decision contradicted the Conservative party’s manifesto pledge to “conserve and enhance our natural environment so that this remains the most beautiful country in the world”.
She said: “We have always opposed fracking in protected areas, so it is outrageous to see licences announced for fracking underneath four National Parks and six AONBs. With a fracking licence issued for the heart of the North York Moors, the National Park could suffer huge environmental, visual and infrastructure intrusion on its perimeter. This, and the process in general, makes a mockery of the Government’s manifesto pledge to ensure this remains ‘the most beautiful country in the world’.
“While it is unsurprising that the Government has wasted little time in offering licences following the vote yesterday, it is lamentable that ministers have wasted so much time in outlining the clear and promised safeguards we desperately need if fracking is to go ahead anywhere.”
However, energy minister Andrea Leadsom said the decision was an important step towards transitioning to a low-carbon future.
"The licences offered today move us a step closer - driving forwards this industry which will provide secure, home-grown energy to hard-working families and businesses for decades to come,” she said.
The Oil and Gas Authority chief executive Andy Samuel sought to reassure environmental campaigners, saying firms interested in fracking would still have to pass further checks.
He said: “I am pleased that the 14th onshore round attracted strong interest and a high quality of proposed work programmes.
“This round enables a significant amount of the UK’s shale prospects to be taken forward to be explored and tested.
“Upon acceptance of these offers, applicants will be issued with licences and will be able to begin planning their future strategies for exploration activities. These will be subject to further local planning, safety, environmental and other authorisations.”
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