Proposed changes to the planning process could put an area nearly the size of Wales at immediate risk of drilling.
The measures are intended to speed up planning applications and make decisions “faster and fairer” for all those involved.
Greg Clark, the business, energy and industrial strategy secretary, and James Brokenshire, the housing and communities secretary, issued a joint statement in which they reiterated the government’s position on the importance of “safe and sustainable exploration and development of our onshore shale gas”.
The government said it will streamline and improve the regulation process for fracking planning applications so decisions are made faster, describing recent decisions as “disappointingly slow”.
Other measures proposed include a £1.6m shale support fund for local authorities and a consultation on whether exploration wells could be drilled without seeking a planning application.
Campaigners said the latter move would “pervert the planning process” and open nearly 18,000 square kilometres of England’s countryside up to “cowboy” operations.
The news emerged as the European Commission launched legal proceedings against the UK government over its illegal levels of air pollution.
Energy and clean growth minister Claire Perry said: “British shale gas has the potential to help lower bills and increase the security of the UK’s energy supply while creating high quality jobs in a cutting-edge sector.
“This package of measures delivers on our manifesto promise to support shale and it will ensure exploration happens in the most environmentally responsible way while making it easier for companies and local communities to work together.”
The motivation behind the support for fracking – or hydraulic fracturing – is to reduce the UK’s reliance on imported gas from continental Europe.
In their statement, the ministers emphasised the strict regulations surrounding any new developments and their desire for an “environmentally robust onshore shale gas sector”.
However, campaigners responded with anger to the announcement, citing the damage caused by fracking operations to the environment and the lack of support from local communities.
Daniel Carey-Dawes, senior infrastructure campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “This announcement signals an outright assault on local communities’ ability to exercise their democratic rights in influencing fracking applications.
“It reads like a wish list from the fracking companies themselves. The government may want to provide ‘sweeteners’ for communities affected, but nothing will change the fact that this will be a bitter pill to swallow.”
Environmental groups point to the water contamination and even potential seismic activity that can result from fracking, as well as the need to move away from fossil fuels altogether.
“After seven years of fracking doing less than nothing to help our economy, the government’s still going all out for shale, and still trampling over democracy to prop up this collapsing industry,” said Rebecca Newsome, head of politics for Greenpeace UK.
“Communities and their local councils across the UK have said no in every way they can, but the government have turned a deaf ear to everyone who doesn’t own a fossil fuel company.”
If the proposed consultation that shale gas exploration development is treated as “permitted development” is accepted, companies would be able to drill without a planning application, environmental impact assessment or the approval of local governments.
“The government’s plans pervert the planning process and could make England’s landscape a wild west for whatever cowboy wants to start drilling and digging up our countryside,” said Rose Dickinson, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
“Permitted development was meant to help people build a fence or a conservatory, not drill for gas.”
A leaked report that emerged in February suggested the government and industry leaders had exaggerated the economic potential of future fracking operations in the UK.
Fracking has previously been banned in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland due to the associated risks.
Rebecca Long Bailey, the shadow business secretary, responded to the news by stating “fracking should be banned, not promoted”.
“But the government is encouraging this dirty fossil fuel by making the planning application easier and creating a special fracking regulator.”
Ms Dickinson added: “If there was a referendum on fracking, it would be banished to the dustbin of history – and that’s where these proposals belong.”
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