The Government is attempting to fast-track fracking by doing away with the need for the public to be consulted before test drilling goes ahead.
The changes, which have been quietly put out to public consultation, mean the advice of local residents would no longer be sought in the early stages of most new oil and gas developments.
The proposals have been strongly criticised by campaign groups, who say the Government is increasing the risk of pollution by relaxing the environmental scrutiny given in the early stages of hydraulic fracturing – where pressurised chemicals are used to break up rocks to release oil or gas.
The changes will sidestep the need for public consultation in England by changing the way permits are allocated for the exploration phase of a site’s development – during which tests are carried out on the site using conventional drilling techniques to determine how much oil or gas is present.
Under the proposed new permit regime, the Environment Agency will no longer visit the site and conduct a thorough environmental audit before drawing up a set of tailored requirements for the exploration company. Instead, it will create a one-size-fits-all permit based on a set of rules that will be awarded to oil and gas companies showing they can meet the criteria.
“This is a big deal,” said David Santillo, a senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories. “To be looking to relax the rules on what is essentially a relatively new activity I think is irresponsible.
“There is still so little experience with what can go wrong with the geology in the UK.”
He added: “I don’t see how they’re going to ensure environmental protection in this way. By definition, they are removing some of their ability to look at the local threat to the environment.” The Government has placed fracking, which in the US has been linked to earthquakes and water and air pollution – at the heart of its energy strategy. Whitehall wants to speed up the development of the fledgling industry by making it quicker and cheaper for companies to start work.
The proposed permit changes relate to the waste created by drilling, well testing and the use of acid to clean the borehole.
The Environment Agency, which regulates oil and gas production in England and Wales, stressed that a so-called site-specific permit – based on a site visit – would be needed if a company wanted to frack following test drilling.
But experts who have studied the proposals say the site-specific assessments should apply to permits all the way along the process and are concerned it is being dropped in the early stages.
Oil and gas companies typically carry out extensive conventional drilling, using a wide variety of chemicals, during the explorative phase of their work – potentially putting the area at risk of water and air pollution and posing a threat to local wildlife, critics say.
Opponents to the changes are particularly concerned because fracking is new to the UK. This makes it harder, they say, to predict how the area will respond to exploration activities – at a time when the Government should be monitoring the process with increased scrutiny.
Jake White, a legal adviser at Friends of the Earth, said: “It is part of the process of steadily chipping away at the regulation of fracking. The activities which standard permits cover can still have real impacts.” Dr Robert Gross, the director of Imperial College London’s Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, told The Independent: “It is important local communities are fully engaged and informed about all aspects of fracking. The Government has signalled it intends to give communities a more prominent role in onshore wind developments … It would seem even more important to ensure that local opinions factor strongly in all decisions about whether, or where, to frack.”
The changes will not apply to Scotland, as the Scottish Parliament controls its own fracking regulation and has banned it while it conducts further research into its safety. They are also unlikely to have an impact on Wales, as the Welsh Assembly has responsibility for planning consent and has pledged to block all fracking applications.
The Environment Agency has put its proposed permit changes to the public, in a consultation that closes at midnight on 15 June.
An agency spokesman said: “We take the environmental risks associated with oil and gas exploration and production very seriously.
“We are committed to ensuring people and the environment are protected and these draft standard rule proposals will only cover lower-risk activities.
“We will actively consider all responses made during the consultation and they will help shape our regulations.” He stressed that the standard permit only referred to “lower-risk activities” and excluded activities such as fracking and flaring off unwanted gas by burning it.
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