New planning guidance for shale gas exploration is just a political panacea to temper opposition, legal experts and industry sources claimed yesterday.
The government has introduced new guidelines for fracking in areas such as National Parks, as it opened up the 14th licencing round for shale gas. “Where applications represent major development, planning permission should be refused in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest,” it said.
But shale gas companies have privately urged for more clarity on the rules, questioning what is defined as a “major development” and an “exceptional circumstance”.
City A.M. understands that the government does not have a specific explanation and will assess proposals on a case-by-case basis.
The government has been highly supportive of shale gas and claims that the controversial hydraulic fracturing – known as fracking – technique used to exploit the resource is perfectly safe for the environment and will not blight the landscape. Yet there are concerns in the coalition that pushing ahead with fracking could lose it vital votes from communities affected, due to the heavy traffic and noise disturbance.
“I think the government had to make some kind of statement that areas such as these need protecting, or the 14th round would have been mired in more controversy than it was,” said Hamish McArdle, energy partner at law firm Baker Botts.
“It’s a bit of a fudge and that’s what every secretary of state wants – discretion that isn’t tied down that precisely.” Michael Wachtel, partner at Clyde & Co, agreed the guidance was “deliberately vague”, calling it “a political statement, rather than a precisely drafted regulatory statement”.