Green groups say plans to fast track shale gas are an assault on democracy, but government insists new rules are needed
By Ed King
The UK government has signalled its intention to break opposition to shale gas exploration by introducing tough new rules fast tracking planning applications.
Under the new measures released on Thursday central government could take control of the shale gas application process from “under performing” councils who fail to process plans in 16 weeks.
Ministers also warn that no shale gas proposal will “fall through the cracks” under new laws that mean rejected applications will face speedy appeals, potentially heard by a government minister.
“To ensure we get this industry up and running we can’t have a planning system that sees applications dragged out for months, or even years on end,” said UK energy secretary Amber Rudd.
But Friends of the Earth said they amount to “bulldozing” fracking plans through the planning system and ignoring local democracy to suit the interests of “dirty industry”.
“It also threatens house prices and the environment of local communities and will cause more climate change,” a spokesperson added.
Nick Clack, senior energy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, questioned why the government was keen to allow local people to decide the fate of wind farms but not shale gas.
“Why is greater localism appropriate for some new energy projects, but not for others?”, he said.
“It sounds disingenuous for the Government to claim that local communities will remain fully involved in shale gas and oil planning decisions if these decisions are ultimately taken by ministers.”
Despite branding shale gas a national priority, the government has been frustrated by slow progress to explore for reserves, largely due to strong local opposition at potential drilling sites.
In a June decision campaigners branded a “Waterloo” for the industry, Lancashire county council denied fracking firm Cuadrilla rights to drill at two sites in the county, citing visual and environmental concerns.
Ministers now say new regulations are needed as council decision making has been “slow and confused”. Further zones deemed suitable for fracking are set to be auctioned shortly.
The government says it also plans to release details of a new sovereign wealth fund later this year, which would be filled from fracking revenues.
Drilling firm iGas plans to submit several new applications over the next year, and supporters say they could start delivering a domestic source of gas by 2020.
But some experts warn a fracking revolution will damage UK efforts to meet domestic climate targets, and potentially hurt international carbon cutting efforts if supplies are exported.
“If shale gas replaces coal or oil that will reduce emissions, but if it slows the growth of renewables or nuclear that could put emissions up – and even for coal replacement, you only gain a carbon saving if leakage rates are kept to virtually zero,” said Richard Black, head of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
“Just describing shale gas as ‘low carbon’ doesn’t make it so, and the government ought to be making clear how it expects the gas to be used and what leakage rates it will allow.”