In a move described by Friends of the Earth as “another attack on democracy in relation to fracking,” British government has drafted proposals to take planning decisions for fracking wells away from local councils in a bid to kick-start the development of the industry in the UK.
In a letter leaked to Friends of the Earth and published in full in The Daily Telegraph, energy secretary Amber Rudd, communities secretary Greg Clark and environment secretary Liz Truss set out objectives to have shale exploration under way in two years time, production in five years, and a mature UK shale industry within a decade.
The letter moves on to set out areas of focus that include:
- developing a clear and persuasive narrative which demonstrates why the potential that shale represents in so important to UK’s future energy security and can by done safely on the way to a low carbon future energy mix (…);
- the development and implementation of an ambitious cross-Governement programme of communications and outreach to influence key opinion formers, decision makers and civic leaders, including media opportunities for Ministers ,a suite of information and materials for the public;
- a clear assessment of the barriers industry faces and what more Government may be able to do to mitigate them, bearing in mind that this may entail further regulation;
- the usability and integrity of the regulatory systems, including the planning system, which together set the parameters for shale development. This includes an early announcement to improve the timescales under the current planning system and going forward consideration of moving shale into national planning;
- the development of a sovereign wealth fund (working with HMT), building on the industry’s existing community benefits offer, to ensure that there is a strong local and regional dividend for hosting this nationally significant industry.
Comparing the shale industry to other new technologies that had faced opposition from the public in the past – such as mobile telecommunications – the authors of the letter see is as essential to have shale exploration happening in Britain to reassure the public that such exploration can be done safely and with no danger to the public.
The document further postulates that then councils be stripped of the ability to block planning applications for fracking wells in local communities, replacing them with unelected planning inspectors who would be given the power to decide if shale gas drilling sites got the go-ahead, paving the way for a huge uptake in fracking.
In response to the document, Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth Chief Executive said “The Government is planning another attack on democracy in relation to fracking. The Prime Minister has said that communities would have a fair say in whether or not fracking should happen near them, but as this letter makes clear, this isn’t being reflected or honoured in the highest levels of Government.”
On the other side of the fence, in a statement sent to Rigzone, UKOOG – the industry body that represents companies that drill onshore for oil and gas in the UK – said that the industry “is committed to consulting and working with local communities to develop the gas resources that this country needs to access to strengthen its energy security”.
UKOOG Chief Executive Ken Cronin commented in the statement: “This is a heavily-regulated industry with four separate regulators, all with their own suite of oversight. Recent experience has shown that the planning process for exploration needs to be made quicker and within prescribed timescales. The time taken for planning decisions has soared from three months to over a year and this is prohibitively expensive for local councils and operators.
“However it is important that local people can put forward their point of view and they are assured that the highest standards of safety and environmental protection are met, but unless the industry can drill exploratory wells we will not know whether gas can be produced economically and safely… By 2030, 80 percent of our gas will be imported from overseas.”
A Government spokeswoman stressed communities will “always be involved” in the planning application process.
“We are backing shale because it’s good for our energy security and will help create jobs and growth,” she said.
“We need to press ahead and get exploration under way so that we can determine how much shale gas there is and how much we can use.
“Ministers have made very clear that communities will always be involved in planning applications and people’s safety and the environment will remain paramount.”
A recent poll conducted by ComRes showed that 55 percent of UK adults said they want domestic gas production – including from fracking – to be prioritised over imports.
The same survey indicated that 56 percent think reducing the cost of energy is more important than environmental concerns.
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