Written Statement sets out plans to accelerate fracking development, as critics accuse ministers of undermining green rhetoric
The government has today sought to revive the UK's ailing fracking industry, unveiling a series of measures that it said would support its goal of delivering a "faster and fairer" planning system for both the fledgling sector and the communities impacted by shale gas development.
In a joint written statement, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Housing and Communities Secretary James Brokenshire, reiterated the government's commitment to building a domestic shale gas industry, arguing once again that it could bolster energy security while supporting emissions reduction targets.
"The UK must have safe, secure and affordable supplies of energy with carbon emissions levels that are consistent with the carbon budgets defined in our Climate Change Act and our international obligations," they wrote. "We believe that gas has a key part to play in meeting these objectives both currently and in the future… Gas still makes up around a third of our current energy usage and every scenario proposed by the Committee on Climate Change setting out how the UK could meet its legally-binding 2050 emissions reduction target includes demand for natural gas."
They also stressed that innovations in technologies such as Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) have the potential to decarbonise gas further, arguing that as such "it is right to utilise our domestic gas resources to the maximum extent and exploring further the potential for onshore gas production from shale rock formations in the UK, where it is economically efficient, and where environment impacts are robustly regulated".
The Ministers stressed any new developments would be subject to tight regulation, detailing how the government sees "an opportunity to work with industry on innovation to create a 'UK Model' - the world's most environmentally robust onshore shale gas sector - and to explore export opportunities from this model, a core theme of our modern industrial strategy".
Green groups have consistently criticised the regulatory regime for fracking, arguing it is under-funded and would allow fracking under National Parks and other environmentally sensitive areas. They have also rejected claims the emissions impact of new gas infrastructure can be mitigated by the emergence of a CCS industry, slamming the government for slashing funding for carbon capture technology.
However, the government maintains that the regulations are appropriate and current planning processes for new shale gas developments are routinely taking too long. "Recent decisions on shale exploration planning applications remain disappointingly slow against a statutory time frame of 16 weeks where an Environmental Impact Assessment is required," the statement reads. "So, we are announcing a range of measures to facilitate timely decisions."
Specifically, the statement, which the ministers said should be considered by planning authorities, proposes new planning guidance for shale gas development in England, a new consultation later this summer on whether non-hydraulic fracturing shale exploration development should be treated as permitted development, and a separate consultation on the criteria required to trigger the inclusion of shale production projects into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime.
If adopted both proposals could radically streamline the planning process for new shale gas projects. However, in a nod to the fierce local opposition many developers have faced, the government said it would also "strengthen community engagement by consulting in due course on the potential to make pre-application consultation a statutory requirement". It also reiterated plans for a Shale Gas Sovereign Wealth Fund and signalled its support for community benefit payments to affected communities.
Ministers also announced a new £1.6m shale support fund to help local authorities process fracking applications and the creation of a new planning brokerage service for shale applications to provide guidance to developers and local authorities.
But they stressed that the government would take an increasingly tough line with authorities that delayed fracking planning decisions. "The government continues to commit to identifying underperforming local planning authorities that repeatedly fail to determine oil and gas applications within statutory timeframes," the statement read. "When any future applications are made to underperforming authorities, the Secretary of State will consider whether he should determine the application instead."
The new measures sparked immediate protests from green groups who have long argued fracking presents an unacceptable risk of local environmental damage and could lock the UK into a new generation of fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when it is committed to deep decarbonisation.
"Britain's fracking experiment was on life support, and now the Government is trying its best to shock it back into life," said Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas. "The truth is that fracking is a redundant technology that would lock us into climate breakdown, carve up our countryside and put the economy on the wrong track. If we're serious about building an economy fit for the future we need to reprogramme our energy system to one which harnesses the power of the sun, sea and wind - rather than throwing resources at this failed fracking experiment.
"These latest measures utterly undermine the government's green rhetoric - and show that the Tories simply can't shake their support for fossil fuel firms."
Her comments were echoed by Rebecca Newsome, head of politics at Greenpeace UK. "After seven years of fracking doing less than nothing to help our economy, the government's still going all out for shale, and still trampling over democracy to prop up this collapsing industry," she said. "Communities and their local councils across the UK have said no in every way they can, but the government have turned a deaf ear to everyone who doesn't own fossil fuel company. In their commitment to extract more gas than we can afford to burn, they are trying to remove planning control from everyone who understands their local area and make exploratory drilling as easy as building a garden wall or conservatory."
In contrast, Ken Cronin, chief executive of shale gas trade body UKOOG, said the moves from the government would help boost the economy and enhance the UK's energy security.
"This country needs a diverse supply of energy which protects and secures UK jobs and UK taxes," he said. "Imported gas currently costs over £13m a day - money that is not generating jobs or tax revenues in this country. To achieve greater homegrown energy production, Britain also needs a policy framework and a planning and permitting system that allows industries like ours to be able to get decisions within timescales that work for all concerned including the local communities we work in. Today's announcement goes some way to ensuring that our energy security is protected and the benefits we have already seen flowing into communities become much more widespread."
It looks like, after seven years, the battle over the future of the UK fracking industry is still a long way from being decided.
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