Exclusive: Ministers plot to foil anti-frackers


Exclusive: Leaked Cabinet plans propose letting unelected planning inspectors, rather than councils, give the go ahead for shale gas wells to boost production


Sunday 31 January 2016




Thousand to join Balcombe 'occupy' camp

Outside the site about 40 tents were erected as protests continued against the operation Photo: Reuters


Communities could lose the right to block fracking wells as part of a Cabinet plan to create a shale gas industry within a decade, the Telegraph can reveal.

The 10-page plan, leaked to anti-fracking campaigners, sets out a timeline for the expansion of the shale gas industry in Britain.

Three Cabinet ministers put their names to the scheme which would see fracking wells classified as ‘nationally significant infrastructure’.

If that was to happen, then councils would be stripped of the ability to block planning applications for fracking wells in local communities.

Instead unelected planning inspectors would be given the power to decide if shale gas drilling sites got the go-ahead, paving the way for a huge uptake in fracking.

The move would also speed up the planning process.

Not in our backyard: protesters march on the Blackpool offices of Cuadrilla to oppose plans to erect a fracking rig in the area

Not in our backyard: protesters march on the Blackpool offices of Cuadrilla to oppose plans to erect a fracking rig in the area  Photo: EPA


The change comes as Ineos, one of the big fracking companies headed by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, disclosed to The Telegraph its own plans to kick-start the UK’s shale gas industry by drilling tens of wells this year. Ineos said it intended to submit a series of planning applications in the spring.

Friends of the Earth, which obtained the leaked letter, branded the proposed changes “an attack on democracy”, while the MPs on the Commons’ Energy and Climate Change committee threatened an investigation.

The letter was sent to George Osborne, the Chancellor, and signed by Amber Rudd, the Energy secretary, Greg Clark, the Local Government secretary and Liz Truss, the Environment secretary.

The letter states that “within 10 years” Britain will have a “maturing shale gas industry”, with “exploration under way and first few sites hydraulic fracturing” by 2017.

By 2020 it envisages that “production [is] underway from the first converted sites (assuming the gas flows and is commercially recoverable)”.

Fracking –short for hydraulic fracturing – involves using high-pressure jets of water to release gas. However, environmental concerns have dogged the industry, with protesters opposing new wells.

The last fracked gas well in the UK – at Preese Hall in Lancashire – stopped work nearly five years ago, and only two new applications are being considered.

Planning inspectors are due to hear an appeal in the next fortnight on Lancashire County Council’s decision to reject an application by Cuadrilla.

The decision to frack a well in Kirby Misperton in Yorkshire is due next month.

The Government is an enthusiastic supporter of fracking, which David Cameron described in 2014 as being “good for our country”.

The Prime Minister blamed a “lack of understanding” about the process for some of the opposition to it, and insisted they would be addressed once people could see functioning shale gas wells in the UK.

In a bid to encourage the nascent industry last year the Government introduced powers to allow ministers to call in fracking planning decisions if councils were taking too long to reach them.

The exploration site for shale gas at Balcombe, West Sussex  Photo: REX FEATURES

In a bid to encourage the nascent industry last year the Government introduced powers to allow ministers to call in fracking planning decisions if councils were taking too long to reach them.

However the Cabinet ministers believe the Government now needs to go further and classify fracking wells as “Nationally Significant Infrastructure” to allow planning inspectors decide if they get the green light.

The minister say in the letter, which was dated July 7 2015, but has only just come to light: “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.

“However 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 Cabinet ministers add: “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 goes on: “It is vital that we reach a position where mineral planning authorities feel able to take sound planning decisions within appropriate timescale and at an appropriate cost.”

A series of earthquakes near Blackpool last year were caused by hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking', a means of extracting gas from shale rock - Carry on fracking

A series of earthquakes near Blackpool last year was caused by hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ – a means of extracting gas from shale rock  Photo: Alamy

A public relations campaign will be necessary about the safety of shale gas to convince sceptics, likening the concerns to health worries about mobile phones in the past

The letter states: “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 a majority of the public, nationally and locally, ie communities likely to be directly affected.

“Other new industries and technologies, such as mobile telecommunications, faced similar challenges in the past and were able to reassure the public. We must now do so with shale.

“Government has to be united using the levers it can control, and bringing 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.”

George Osborne, the Chancellor

George Osborne, the Chancellor  Photo: Julian Simmonds/The Telegraph


Campaigners and MPs condemned the plans to take away powers from councils over new wells. Craig Bennett, the Friends of the Earth chief executive, said: “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 MP, chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, said the letter demonstrated “breathtaking hypocrisy “ from the Government.

He said: “There is a massive double standard her when the Tory Government now wants to run roughshod over the wishes of local communities.

“I feel sorry for people in England who can have their wishes and powers disregarded by a centralised two-faced government driving a very narrow agenda.

“It will be a worrying development for many communities in England and my committee may scrutinise inconsistencies in energy policy approach.”

SNP MP Angus MacNeil

SNP MP Angus MacNeil asked what the public was getting for its money and said it was time the ‘unelected retirement home’ came to an end  Photo: PA


Commenting on the letter, a Government spokesman said: “We are backing shale because it’s good for our energy security and will help create jobs and growth.

“We need to press ahead and get exploration underway so that we can determine how much shale gas there is and how much we can use.

“Ministers have made very clear that communities will always be involved in planning applications and people’s safety and the environment will remain paramount.”

The letter in full


Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/fracking/12130801/Ministers-plot-to-foil-anti-frackers.html


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