The government reinstated its position on fracking last week by announcing a number of new measures as part of the modern Industrial Strategy. The measures look at streamlining shale gas planning and providing local authorities with more financial resource to cope with future applications. Whilst all seemed to have fallen flat on the government’s support for shale gas since the shock election results, the following measures aim to follow through on a number of manifesto commitments:
The switch to a ‘single regulator’
An independent ‘single regulator’ has been debated for some time, with many unsure as to what the current roles are of the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive in relation to shale gas. The service will look to hold local authorities and operators to account and ensure applications are progressed within the correct time-frames and procedures, but will not comment on the merits of a case.
A single regulator would give clarity to the public, help ensure efforts are not duplicated and would avoid the management of any risks falling between the cracks. With the industry currently in its infancy, a step towards one regulator (which will require significant funding), suggests that the government is gearing up for development on a much bigger scale.
Local or national decision making?
The government is looking to consult on whether fracking should be considered ‘Nationally Significant’ and should therefore be examined under the Development Consent Order regime. Planning applications are currently conducted under the Town and Country Planning Act (1990), and as has been witnessed in Lancashire and Cheshire, operators are often hit with a wave of local opposition from local residents. A consenting process under the DCO regime would help prevent applications from being turned into political footballs, with more weight being added to the ‘national need’ for shale gas.
The time taken to determine applications is the main reason why this measure is being brought forward. Local Authorities currently have a sixteen-week statutory timescale for determining fracking applications, and these are often poorly policed by officers and members, taking years to come to fruition. On the other hand, many NSIP’s are still only determined within approximately 15 months, and this does not include informal consultation that needs to be carried out with stakeholders in the pre-application stage.
However, the DCO regime does have a very high success rate, with the views of local stakeholders a statutory part of the pre-application consultation process. But the chances of a specific application being caught in local political infighting is very much reduced.
Permitted development for initial work
Much like the production phase of shale gas, exploratory work also requires planning permission under the TCPA. Like any business, operators need certainty that conditions are correct until further investments are made, and so the exploratory phase can act as an early indicator to decide whether production is viable.
Permitted development for early stages will naturally speed up the planning process and save on costs, but critics argue that it will be a prerequisite for future development, especially on applications where the operator has a clear intention to frack multiple wells.
Conversely, it is impossible to assess each and every impact that shale gas may present in the early stages, and so allowing initial stages to be permitted may speed up the environmental examination process, and provide operators the opportunity to defeat accusations in relation to water contamination and the like.
The UK government has restated its position on shale gas after a long period of silence on the issue. With uncertainties surrounding Brexit and what the impact will be on consumers, now is a fitting time to reassess how the process of domestic gas production can be sped up. The additional resources announced to help local authorities with applications is a positive step, and may nullify the need to switch to the DCO regime, which would require significant financial investment from industry at a very sensitive time.
BECG have a strong track record of delivering robust consultations for heavily regulated sectors, including shale gas exploration. If you would like more information on national infrastructure planning, or require support influencing decision makers, please contact BECG at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0161 359 4107.