bA leaked government plan, published by The Telegraph today, proposed taking decisions for fracking wells away from local councils.
The 10-page document, signed by three cabinet members and sent to the Chancellor, aimed to create the conditions to establish a shale gas industry in the UK within a decade.
It was written on 7th July 2015, just days after the decisions by Lancashire County Council to refuse permission to Cuadrilla to frack wells in the Fylde.
The signatories, Liz Truss (Environment Secretary), Amber Rudd (Energy and Climate Change) and Greg Clark (Communities and Local Government) proposed classifying fracking sites as “nationally significant infrastructure”. If approved this would give decisions to unelected planning inspectors.
Friends of the Earth, which obtained the document, described the proposal as “an attack on democracy”.
The letter, published in part on the Telegraph website, is a response to a request by the Chancellor for a “joint plan to develop the shale gas sector”.
It set as objectives:
- Within two years: exploration underway and the “first few sites hydraulic fracturing”
- Within five years: production underway
- Within 10 years: maturing shale gas production industry
It recommends what it called “a long-term approach to planning which is suitable for handling the large number of applications that would be seen in a full production stage”. The authors said:
“We are therefore minded to bring commercial shale production within the Nationally Significant Infrastructure planning regime and to be ready to begin the move from early 2016 for large scale applications.”
But they advised caution:
“We need to think carefully about whether to slow this approach until a number of exploration sites are underway in order to avoid delaying current and prospective exploration applications or undermining public support for exploration sites”.
The ministers wrote:
“We need some exploration wells, to clearly demonstrate that shale exploration can be done cleanly and safely here. So we must put our immediate efforts into securing some early wins in exploration.”
The letter said it was vital that that planning authorities felt able to “take sound planning decisions within appropriate timescale and cost”.
National Park protections
The letter also made it a top priority to ensure protections for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty did not obstruct fracking.
Under regulations attached to the Infrastructure Act fracking is prohibited from the surface of these areas, although it can be done under them. The ministers said:
“One of our top priorities will be to examine what work is required to ensure that the safeguarding provisions in the [Infrastructure] Act do not inadvertently create fresh barriers to exploration and to minimise the delays that the requirements in the act have introduced.”
Shale gas strategy
The ministers’ proposed
- “A clear and persuasive narrative which demonstrates why the potential that shale represents is so important to our energy security”
- “An ambition cross-government programme of communications and outreach to influence key opinion-formers, decision makers and civic leaders, including media opportunities for ministers”
- “A clear assessment” of the barriers industry faces and what more Government may be able to do to mitigate them
- “The usability and integrity of the regulatory systems”
- The development of a sovereign wealth fund to “ensure there is a strong local and regional dividend for hosting this national significant industry”
Since the letter was written, the government changed planning rules, allowing the Local Government Secretary to decide appeals on onshore oil and gas. Mr Clark will make the final decision in Cuadrilla’s appeal, being heard at a public inquiry starting next month. The government said he could take over decisions on oil and gas applications submitted to councils that did not make decisions within 16 weeks.
But the government has not yet gone as far as the letter proposed and declared shale gas developments as nationally significant infrastructure projects.
The Telegraph’s publication coincided with a nationwide weekend of events against fracking. More than 35 events were being held across the country today (Sunday). The government’s most recent poll on attitudes to fracking revealed record levels of opposition.
In the letter, the ministers identified negative public opinion as a major obstacle to shale gas.
“Alongside geology and investment, the biggest challenge we face is to foster a climate of opinion in which the development of our shale resources is seen as safe and acceptable to majority of the public nationally and locally, ie communities likely to be directly affected”
But it adds that other new industries, such as mobile telecommunications, faced similar challenges and the public had been reassured.
“We must now do so with shale”
The letter said:
“The government has to be united using the levers it can control and bring in others to support our policy where we are not in control.
“This will be a challenging balance given public misgivings. It will be important that we can demonstrate that shale can be developed safely so this will be a key feature of our communications strategy”.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, told the Telegraph,
“David Cameron said communities would have a voice in whether or not fracking should happen near them but clearly they are saying one thing while privately pursuing quite another.”
“Communities and local councils could have an opinion on what colour they want the security gates to a shale gas site to be painted but seemingly little else. This Government appears to promise democracy, they don’t intend to deliver”.
Angus MacNeil, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, told the Telegrapgh:
“It will be a worrying development for many communities in England and my committee may scrutinise inconsistencies in energy policy approach”.
In the 2015 Queen’s Speech, the government said it planned to declassify some onshore windfarms as Nationally Significant Infrastructure projects so that they would be decided by local planning authorities, rather than a planning inspector.
- The letter refers to an Annex A, which is an “outline plan” and Annex B which has an “outline narrative”. Neither were published with the letter.
Updated on 1/2/16 to include reference in the leaked letter to National Parks
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