MPs oppose plan to remove local role in fracking decisions

LONDON (Reuters) - British government plans to transfer shale oil and gas exploration planning decisions from local authorities to the national level will be a backward step and harm local democracy, a cross-party committee of UK lawmakers warned on Thursday.

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In May, the government announced plans to speed up planning applications to support development of the country’s shale gas industry which it believes will reduce Britain’s dependence on imported gas in the future.

Among the measures is a proposal for fracking sites to be classified as “nationally significant infrastructure”, which would mean approval for planning applications would be done at a national rather than local level.

Changing the decision-making process in this way would likely exacerbate existing mistrust between communities and the fracking industry, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee said in a report.

“Taking decision-making powers away from local planning authorities would be a backward step. It would remove the important link between fracking applications and local plans and be hugely harmful to local democracy and the principles and spirit of localism,” said Clive Betts, chair of the committee.

Instead, local mineral planning authorities have the best knowledge of their areas to determine the impacts of fracking, the report said.

The UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) trade association said it did not share the committee’s view on a national planning role as applications for shale wells can take up to 18 months.

“This leaves communities with uncertainty and local taxpayers with a huge bill to foot and is against the experience of the previous 10 years where most applications were decided in less than four months and against a statutory timescale of three months,” it said in a statement.

Hydraulic fracturing involves extracting gas obtained from rocks broken up or fractured with water and chemicals at high pressure. It has become a contentious issue in Europe after it helped reverse a fall in U.S. oil output, transformed its gas sector and boosted the economy of several states.

Despite that, critics argue that fracking can be associated with environmental issues such as increased industrial activity and water contamination and boost fossil fuel production when more renewable energy should be encouraged.

Commercial production of shale gas in Britain has not yet started as developers complain that progress has been slowed by protests and regulatory processes.

British shale gas developer Caudrilla expects to fracture its first two horizontal wells in Blackpool later this year, subject to approvals.

The Scottish government has in effect banned fracking by ordering local authorities to reject planning applications from companies seeking to do shale gas exploration, after a public consultation found overwhelming opposition to it.

Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and David Evans