Telegraph – Though touted as a change of policy it simply highlights the normal ‘dower test’ the absence of any real previous guidance of its application to Fracking having led to much uncertainty whether or not the government intended a free for all. It appears though this is spin to deflect attention away from the massive expansion of licences to be announced today, and the implied threat of Eric Pickles to grant special development orders for exploration wells.
National parks and other areas of important countryside will be protected from fracking, ministers will announce today in a move that will head off anger in the Tory heartlands ahead of the election.
While stopping short of a total ban, the Government will unveil new planning guidance to make it harder to drill fracking wells in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
In a significant concession, the new rules state that fracking should only be allowed in the most precious areas of British countryside in “exceptional circumstances”.
Matthew Hancock, the new business and energy minister, said that the new measures “will protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes”.
It will be seen as a major victory for countryside campaigners, who have repeatedly called for a total ban on shale exploration in the rocks beneath national parks to protect rare wildlife and fragile habitats.
Senior Conservatives had voiced concerns that the push for fracking in key Tory areas in the South East would result in a repeat of the protests seen last year in Balcombe, West Sussex, which resulted in dozens of arrests.
A number of Tory MPs have also pledged to oppose any shale gas exploration in their constituencies.
Sources close to Mr Hancock last night insisted that the new planning guidance does not represent a climb-down.
But one Conservative source described the measures as “tantamount to a ban” on fracking in national parks.
Under the new rules fracking in protected areas will only be approved by ministers if the gas and oil reserves are so large that they are deemed to be of “exceptional” national significance and any impact on the environment can be kept to a minimum.
It raises the prospect of Britain’s fracking industry being focused in the north of England, as fewer potential shale reserves there are situated in national parks.
A spokesman for the National Trust, who have opposed the Government on its planning reforms and expressed concerns over the spread of fracking around the countryside, said: “It’s right that the Government have recognised the concerns about fracking in special places like national parks and AONBs.
“We welcome the new planning guidance which will makes clear that applications should be refused in these areas other than in exceptional circumstances.
“But it’s not just national parks and AONBs that could be at risk but other special places too, which is why we’d like to see this approach extended to nature reserves and other wildlife sites like Sites of Special Scientific Interest as well.”
The Government will today [MONDAY] announce plans to offer up vast swathes of Britain for fracking.
The so-called “14th onshore licensing round”, which will invite companies to bid for the rights to explore in as-yet untouched parts of the country, could lead to thousands of new fracking wells, it is understood.
Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to hydraulically fracture shale rocks and extract oil and gas trapped within them.
Campaigners had warned that fracking could lead to water contamination and the destruction of important wildlife habitats.
“The new guidance published today will protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes. Building on the existing rules that ensure operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced,” Mr Hancock said.
Mr Hancock wants to speed up the time it takes for companies to get approval to drill for shale gas.
At present firms have to wait around 15 months for permission to drill but Mr Hancock wants to half that ahead of the election.
He added: “Ultimately, done right, speeding up shale will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for our country.”
As part of the new planning rules, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, will intervene if a fracking company appeals against a decision by a local authority not to grant a shale gas exploration application.
It means companies will be less likely to bully local communities into granting applications using the threat of legal action.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a minister in the communities department, said: “Effective exploration and testing of the UK’s unconventional gas resources is key to understanding the potential for this industry – so the Government is creating the right framework to accelerate unconventional oil and gas development in a responsible and sustainable way.
“We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons.”
He said that any proposals for fracking wells in valuable countryside “must recognise the importance of these sites”.
A previous government-commissioned report said as many as 2,880 wells could be drilled in the new licence areas, generating up to a fifth of the country’s annual gas demand at peak and creating as many as 32,000 jobs.
However, the report warned that communities close to drilling sites could see a large increase in traffic. Residents could face as many as 51 lorry journeys each day for three years, the study said.
It also warned of potential strain on facilities for handling the waste water generated by hydraulic fracturing.
There were also concerns over the potential environmental impact on the countryside.