UK ministers have announced a series of measures designed to fast-track shale gas planning applications in England.
The government says shale gas is a “national priority” and that today’s measures will ensure the industry gets up and running without delay.
Carbon Brief runs through the changes and explores the government’s argument for fracking.
Since prime minister David Cameron said the country would be going “all out” for shale back in January 2014, no fracking has taken place. More formally known as hydraulic fracturing, it has been on hold since exploratory drilling caused earth tremors near Blackpool in 2011.
Two applications from shale firm Cuadrilla were rejected by Lancashire County Council in June, prompting Cameron to say “these decisions must be made by local authorities under the planning system”. This seemed to row back from his previous, more gung-ho approach.
Since then, however, Number 10 has published a short promotional video explaining why it believes the UK needs shale gas. Department of energy and climate change (DECC) secretary of state Amber Rudd has also written an article for the Sunday Times arguing that “our country needs shale gas”.
Today’s changes are designed to “fast-track” shale gas planning applications in England through a “dedicated planning process”. That’s so fracking, as a “national priority”, isn’t “frustrated by slow and confused decision making”, according to a joint announcement from Rudd and Greg Clark, secretary of state at the department of communities and local government (DCLG).
So what changes are actually being made? First, Clark will start to ‘call in’ some shale gas planning applications. This means he would decide if they should go ahead, taking the decision out of local council hands.
In order to achive this, the government may need to issue a statement in parliament amending current guidelines on when calling in is allowed. The guidelines say the secretary of state should, in general, only call in applications “if planning issues of more than local importance are involved”.
Examples include cases that “give rise to…national controversy”, so it looks like fracking cases could technically already have been called in by Clark, though neither he nor his predecessor have ever done so.
Second, government will amend rules on ‘recovering’ appeals. This is where the secretary of state decides a planning appeal, rather than a planning inspector. Again, current rules say Clark could call in controversial appeals, so it isn’t clear if this change makes much difference either.
Third, councils that “repeatedly” fail to decide shale gas planning applications within a 16 week deadline could lose the right to consider them at all, with the secretary of state taking over. Carbon Brief asked DCLG and DECC what “repeatedly” means. Neither gave a specific number, but a spokesman for DECC noted that it was “clearly more than once”.
Since so few shale gas applications have passed councils’ desks so far, this is more a threat for them to use their right to make fracking decisions quickly in future. If they don’t, they face losing that right with central government taking over.
Fourth, the government will “ensure” the Planning Inspectorate “prioritises” fracking appeals. This would include Cuadrilla’s appeal against the Lancashire rejection. Finally, the government hopes to give shale firms ‘permitted development rights’ to drill groundwater monitoring boreholes. This would allow drilling without planning permission.
In support of this strict deadline for shale decisions, the government notes that Cuadrilla’s recent applicaiton took over a year before it was rejected. However, it was the first of its kind and included several delays requested by Cuadrilla.
Planning deadlines are breached by councils relatively frequently. Around a quarter of decisions on major developments take longer than they are supposed to, government figures show.
It isn’t clear how any of this fits with Cameron’s June comment that decisions on shale gas should be taken locally. The approach is also in stark contrast to that for onshore wind, where the government has moved to strengthen local decision-making powers and give local people “the final say”.
Over the past decade, councils have consistently taken more than 12 months to decide onshore wind planning applications, according to industry body Renewable UK. During the past year the average for an onshore wind decision was 15 months.
Like fracking applications, wind proposals tend to be more complex and technical than schemes like housing developments that councils deal with routinely. Council resources have also be repeatedly squeezed, with local government funding down 40% since 2010.
Why shale gas?
In her Sunday Times article, Rudd says shale gas is needed to “help meet our objectives for secure energy supplies, economic growth and lower-carbon emissions”. However, shale gas can only provide climate benefits if it replaces coal, and if other tough conditions are met.
Rudd does say the UK needs shale gas as part of the shift away from coal, “our dirtiest energy source”. Yet this is unlikely to be possible. Estimates suggest UK fracking would need until the mid-2020s to scale up. Government projections are that coal will generate 1% of power in 2025.
Rudd also says gas will be needed for “many years to come” for heating, cooking and industry and that it should be sourced at home, rather than imported. Domestic demand has been falling rapidly, however, and the Climate Change Act will squeeze the carbon space for burning gas in future.
Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre told Carbon Brief in June that very little gas could be used for power in 2030. Domestic and industrial uses would need to fall “quite rapidly” into the 2030s, he added.
Finally, Rudd argues that shale gas will be good for the UK economy, creating “more than 60,000 new jobs” and generating billions. All policy job creation numbers should in be viewed sceptically and those for shale come with particularly large uncertainty.
An announcement on the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round is expected within days. This will give successful applicants the right to explore for oil and gas in designated areas covering around two-fifths of the UK. Firms would need planning permission and environmental permits before they started drilling.
Meanwhile public opposition to fracking has reached record highs, in polls conducted since 2013 by the Sunday Times and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The DECC poll suggests opposition is higher among those that are more familiar with shale gas.
As Carbon Brief was preparing for publication it had already received reactions to the news from a range of sources.
There was support from the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), an industry body, which said that councils used to take around three months to decide onshore oil and gas planning applications but that the “unwieldy” process now took more than a year.
There was opposition from green groups and the Local Government Association (LGA), representing councillors.
The official line from councillor Peter Box, LGA environment spokesman, is that local people “have a right to be heard” and that “local planning procedure exists for a reason”. Unofficially, councils would prefer the government to stay out of fracking decisions.
Friends of the Earth planning adviser Naomi Luhde-Thompson said in a statement:
Friends of the Earth adds that planning delays have “frequently been caused by developers”, who have asked for deferrals or failed to provide sufficient information to councils.
Daisy Sands, Greenpeace head of energy campaigns said in a statement:
Main image: Abandoned shale gas rig used for fracking. © Calin Tatu/Shutterstock.com.
Update 10:40 - We added further details to the article.