MPs from across the main political parties have joined forces in an attempt to stop the acceleration of UK fracking applications, described as ‘hugely harmful’ and ‘a backward step’.
Ministers have been urged by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee to halt shale developments in order to avoid worsening strained relationships with local communities regarding this controversial extraction method.
The new measures would speed-up decision-making on UK fracking applications at a national level, giving the government the power to overrule local councils for planning permission. This policy has been heavily criticised by environmentalists, local communities, and now MPs, due to fears it could pollute water supplies, destroy the landscape of rural areas, and potentially cause earthquakes.
In a report, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee wrote that there was little evidence the move would speed-up the UK fracking applications process. Committee chair and Labour MP Clive Betts said: “Taking decision-making powers away from local planning authorities would be a backward step.
“It would remove the important link between fracking applications and local plans and be hugely harmful to local democracy and the principles and spirit of localism.
“It is mineral planning authorities that have the knowledge of their areas needed to judge the impacts of fracking, not ministers sitting in Whitehall.”
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In response to the report, Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth said: “MPs are right to denounce government plans to make it easier for fracking companies to drill without planning permission and slash the involvement of local people.
“It’s absurd that the government wants to apply rules originally designed for harmless activities like putting up a garden shed to include drilling for oil and gas.
“Fracking is highly contentious and bad news for our climate and environment; at the very least local people deserve to have a say.”
The Ministry of Housing responded to complaints, saying: “Shale gas has the potential to power economic growth, support jobs, and provide a new energy source.
“We are consulting on fracking planning guidance in the summer and will announce more information in due course.”
Committee report limitations
UK Onshore Oil & Gas chief executive Ken Cronin stated that there are a number of important points in the report that the industry sympathises with. These include the role of a new regulator, local authority funding, and the need for a forum where the public can voice their concerns.
However, he told Power Technology: “We do not support the committee’s recommendations opposing government proposals on permitted development rights and national planning.
“The report fails to address the main concern of both the industry and local communities, which is the fact that planning applications for even the simplest of wells now take up to 18 months to conclude and that many of the professional planning officers’ recommendations are ignored.
“This leaves communities with uncertainty and local taxpayers with a huge bill to foot, and is against the experience of the previous ten years where most applications were decided in less than four months and against a statutory timescale of three months.”
Fracking involves pumping water and chemicals underground at high pressures to fracture shale rock and release gas. While the Conservative government has been keen to pursue this process for a number of years, it has so far failed to make any meaningful progress.
UK fracking potential exaggerated?
The government still believes that shale exploration could offer jobs and investment to the energy sector, despite planning decisions going against the industry and heavy opposition to the development of wells amid environmental concerns.
After Greenpeace submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, a previously unreleased government report from 2016 appeared to reveal that UK politicians and industry leaders had been exaggerating the potential of UK fracking operations.
The Implementation Unit Report on Shale Gas stated that 155 fracking wells were planned for construction by 2025. Politicians have been indicating that 4,000 wells could be drilled by 2032. All figures related to UK fracking productivity were based on this target, such as the prediction that it could create more than 64,000 jobs and bring in £33bn of investment.
In spite of this, the government insists that fracking is worth pursuing.