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Fracking push gets go-ahead across UK as ministers tighten safeguards

 

Protest Against Fracking in U.K.

The anti-fracking protest camp in Salford, where energy company iGas built a vertical test well. Photograph: Christopher Thomond

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Fracking push gets go-ahead across UK as ministers tighten safeguards” was written by Rowena Mason, political correspondent, for The Guardian on Sunday 27th July 2014 23.10 UTC

Ministers give the go-ahead on Monday for a big expansion of fracking across Britain that will allow drilling in national parks and other protected areas in “exceptional circumstances”.

The government will invite firms to bid for onshore oil and gas licences for the first time in six years, with about half of the country advertised for exploration. Ministers are also clarifying the rules on when drilling can take place in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and world heritage sites, following calls by environmental campaigners for an outright ban on drilling in them.

In a tightening of the guidance, the government will ask energy firms to submit an environmental statement that is “particularly comprehensive and detailed” if they want to frack on or near protected countryside, forcing them to demonstrate their understanding of local sensitivities. It will make clear that the applications “should be refused in these areas other than in exceptional circumstances and in the public interest”.

In addition, Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, is likely to make a final decision on more appeals related to protected areas over the next 12 months, instead of leaving it to the planning watchdog.

The competition for licences is likely to attract significant interest from energy companies keen to explore Britain’s new-found shale reserves, particularly in the Bowland basin of the north-west, a central belt of Scotland and the Weald in the south-east. It is the first time the government has offered up areas of the UK for onshore exploration since experts confirmed the scale of the UK’s shale resources and protests erupted in places from Blackpool to Balcombe about the potential for environmental damage.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a Tory communities minister, will present the licensing round in the House of Lords , as MPs have broken up for their summer break. “We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons,” Lord Ahmad will say. “Proposals for such development must recognise the importance of these sites.”

The licences are the first step towards exploration but firms will also have to obtain planning consent, permits from the Environment Agency and a sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive.

Over the weekend, Matthew Hancock, the Conservative energy minister, said he wanted to speed up the process so companies are able to start drilling within six months of putting in applications. He also said the guidance published on Monday would “protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes”.

This promise is likely to face one of its first tests in Sussex, where a planning decision on a prospective Celtique Energie fracking site in the South Downs National Park is due within weeks. The county council has rejected a separate application from Celtique in nearby Wisborough Green, just outside the national park, because of traffic concerns, which may now be appealed against by the company and end up in the hands of Pickles.

The Conservatives in particular are facing unrest on the backbenches about the prospect of fracking in rural constituencies. The government will hope that its tightening of the rules on national parks will placate local residents, MPs and green campaigners concerned about the impact of fracking on the landscape, drinking water and environment.

But the announcement met with mixed reactions. Louise Hutchins, a Greenpeace energy campaigner, said millions of homeowners have been stripped of their right to stop companies drilling under their property and now communities will face a “fracking postcode lottery”.

“The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside, including in sensitive areas such as those covering major aquifers. Eric Pickles’s supposed veto power over drilling in national parks will do nothing to quell the disquiet of fracking opponents across Britain,” she said.

Hutchins also criticised the timing of the announcement, saying ministers “waited until the parliamentary recess to make their move, no doubt aware of the political headache this will cause to MPs whose constituencies will be affected”.

 

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