The bidding round, which is the first since 2008, will in theory open up more than half of the country to shale gas developers. Yet any fracking in “national parks, the Broads, areas of outstanding natural beauty and World Heritage sites” will be banned other than in exceptional cases, when a public interest test will also have to be applied.
The government has argued that hydraulic fracturing – known as fracking – is perfectly safe for the environment and will not impose on the landscape. The process typically happens hundreds of metres beneath the surface.
Yet with less than 10 months until the General Election, the coalition faces concerns that pushing ahead with the often-unpopular drilling method could risk losing votes, including in Conservative heartlands.
On top of the new licences, energy firms will also have to secure planning permission, a permit from the Environment Agency, and agreement from the Health & Safety executive.
Matthew Hancock, who took over as energy minister earlier this month, was nonetheless bullish. “Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth,” Hancock said.
But others are less convinced. Lord Howell of Guilford, George Osborne’s father-in-law and a former energy secretary, has warned that the coalition’s dash for gas could prove “extremely dangerous politically” and will lose them thousands of Tory votes, due to the heavy traffic and noise disturbance involved in developing a shale gas site.
The largest shale gas reserves currently identified are in the north of England. But a more recent study by the British Geological Survey found reserves in the Weald Basin, which crosses the counties of Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Surrey – traditional Tory heartlands.
Earlier this month former policing minister Nick Herbert MP urged councillors in West Sussex to dismiss Celtique Energie’s application to test drill for shale oil near the village of Wisborough Green, warning that “rural West Sussex cannot become a carelessly industrialised landscape.”
While some firms are wary of the new rules, Ken Cronin of the UK Onshore Operators Group, told City A.M.: “Today is another step in the right direction of extracting gas and oil indigenously in the UK, which will reduce our reliance on imports, as well as creating jobs,”