The government has opened the bidding process that will allow companies to apply for shale gas exploration. World Heritage sites and national parks are also open to drilling, but ministers have assured they will be protected and licenses for these areas will be granted in exceptional circumstances only.
Energy companies will now be able to apply for new licences to drill for shale oil and gas – through the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, often criticised because of potential methane leaks and groundwater pollution.
Britain is said to have substantial reserves of shale gas, which the government intend to exploit and support as ‘clean fossil fuel’, despite this claim being often contested.
The new guidance opens up more than half the country for potential exploration, and requires drilling approval by the Environment Agency – whose new chief used to work for a firm assessing the environmental impact of fracking.
National parks, World Heritage sites and ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ will not be excluded from the planning strategy, but the government has assured the case for fracking on these sites will be specially assessed and would require detailed Statements of Environmental Awareness from applicants.
Business and energy minister Matthew Hancock said, “The new guidance published today will protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes. Building on the existing rules that ensure operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced.
“Ultimately, done right, speeding up shale will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for our country.”
Communities minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon added, “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.”
However, the proposal met strong opposition by environmental groups. Greenpeace UK Energy Campaigner Louise Hutchins commented, “First they stripped millions of homeowners of their right to stop companies drilling under their property, now communities across the nation will face a fracking postcode lottery.
“Even ministers and the industry itself have admitted fracking won’t cut bills, but it will damage our countryside while opening up a new source of carbon pollution. The only people who stand to benefit from shale drilling are the bosses of a few inexperienced energy companies, which have yet to prove they can operate safely, while local communities will bear the full brunt of the disruption and potential environmental damage.”
Friends of the Earth’s energy campaigner Tony Bosworth added, “Fracking is increasingly politically toxic and is far from being seen as the ‘holy grail’ of energy policy by those local to proposed drilling sites.
“The decision last week at Wisborough Green is a reminder of local opposition – politicians supporting fracking could face big electoral problems.”
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