The government's plans to fast-track new fracking projects have been described as “ludicrous” and “downright bonkers”, by their own MPs.
Politicians from all parties lined up at a parliamentary debate to criticise a proposal to reclassify exploratory fracking wells as permitted developments, under rules originally introduced to speed up projects like small property extensions.
The government has stated it wishes to make such decisions “faster and fairer”, but opponents said it would make fracking as easy as putting up a garden shed.
Fracking has proved a contentious topic in recent weeks as the first well in seven years has been the site of protests and seen off a legal challenge to block it. Operations at Preston New Road, Lancashire, have stopped three times due to concerns about earth tremors.
The government has stated it wishes to make such decisions “faster and fairer”, but opponents say it would make fracking as easy as putting up a garden shed.
Mark Menzies, a Conservative MP whose Fylde constituency includes the Preston New Road site, cited the massive infrastructure developments needed at new fracking sites including “a 30-metre drilling rig”.
“Now, who on Earth thinks that is equivalent to building a little extension on the side of your bungalow? It is not,” he said. “Moving to permitted development is nothing short of irresponsible and downright bonkers.”
Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park, said the government supporting fracking while blocking new onshore wind developments was “inexplicably inconsistent” and evidence of “policy that is driven more by ideology than anything else”.
There are reportedly up to 20 Conservative MPs ready to rebel over the government’s plan, which critics say would effectively strip local people of the ability to block fracking applications.
Tories from constituencies facing new fracking sites including Kevin Hollinrake and Lee Rowley expressed their concerns that people’s voices would be taken away.
“I started without any fixed view on fracking, but I stand here today to say that the proposal on permitted development and the proposal on NSIP [nationally significant infrastructure projects] are ludicrous and need to be stopped, and that fracking will not work in this country,” said the MP for North East Derbyshire.
Mr Rowley, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the impact of shale gas, has questioned whether it will be possible for fracking plans to ever be scaled up into a workable industry in the UK.
The same concerns have recently been expressed by Francis Egan, the chief executive of oil and gas firm Cuadrilla, which operates the site in Lancashire.
With persistent earth tremors repeatedly halting proceedings since they began at the site two weeks ago, Mr Egan has stated the current regulatory system could stop fracking becoming commercially viable in the UK.
Under the "traffic light" system currently used by the industry, fracking must stop whenever it causes tremors with a magnitude above 0.5.
One independent study estimated that over 6,000 wells will be needed to make it a practical option to supply gas to the UK’s energy system.
The most recent estimate by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) suggested there will be 155 wells by 2025, although energy minister Claire Perry has stated this figure is now “out of date”.
Daniel Carey-Dawes, senior infrastructure campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England said the debate was "a clear demonstration of the widespread growing anger – by MPs on all sides of the political spectrum – towards the government’s plans to fast-track fracking".
The government recently closed its consultation on whether new shale exploration sites should be treated as permitted developments.
Responding to the concerns raised at the debate, housing minister Kit Malthouse said the government remained “fully committed to ensuring that local communities are fully involved in planning decisions that affect them, and to making planning decisions faster and fairer”.
“Those are long-standing principles and I am adamant that we should stick to them.”
BEIS has emphasised the role it sees for natural gas in meeting the UK’s climate targets, and the role fracking can play in this.
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