LONDON (Reuters) - The British government announced measures on Thursday to speed up planning applications to support development of the country’s shale gas industry.
Increasing reliance on imported gas as Britain’s domestic North Sea output declines is one of the driving forces behind government support for hydraulic fracturing, which involves extracting gas obtained from rocks broken up or fractured with water and chemicals at high pressure.
However, it is impossible to know exactly how much shale gas might be underground - and, more importantly, how much can be extracted - until fracking has started in earnest.
Commercial production of shale gas in Britain is not expected for two years and developers complain that progress has been slowed by protests and regulatory processes.
Recent decisions on shale exploration remain disappointingly slow, the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Greg Clark, said in a written statement to Parliament.
The government, therefore, will introduce measures to streamline and improve the regulation process for shale gas planning applications so decisions are made more quickly.
Shale gas developers say it can take up to three years to obtain permission to drill a test well in Britain, compared with only a month in the United States.
The government will also launch a new 1.6 million pound ($2.2 million) shale support fund over the next two years to build capacity and expertise in local authorities dealing with shale planning applications and set up a shale environmental regulator.
The government also said it will open a consultation on whether exploration wells will be allowed to be drilled without the need for a planning application.
The possibility of this has angered some environmental groups opposed to fracking because of concerns about potential seismic activity, water contamination and other issues.
“The government’s plans pervert the planning process and could make England’s landscape a wild west for whatever cowboy wants to start drilling and digging up our countryside,” said Rose Dickinson, campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
However, shale gas developers such as IGas, Cuadrilla and Ineos, welcomed the measures, particularly those to speed up the planning process.
“Our planning permission to drill and test just four shale gas exploratory wells in Lancashire was granted after a lengthy and costly three-year process. These timelines must improve if the country is to benefit from its own, much needed, indigenous source of gas,” Cuadrilla said in a statement.
The Scottish government outlawed fracking last year after a public consultation found overwhelming opposition to it.
Editing by David Goodman