The government is busy quelling worries about the planning process for exploratory shale drilling, following this disobliging article in yesterday’s Observer. The government stresses that its planning guidance document, which was published last month, contains a list of environmental risks that planning officers ‘should address’, together with an explanation of the competences of other relevant government departments and agencies.
The government rejects any insinuation that it is placing shale above renewables. Indeed, aides have taken the opportunity to reiterate the coalition’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, paragraphs 97 and 98 of the National Planning Policy Framework suggest that, despite the government’s commitment to a varied energy supply, renewables and low carbon alternatives are being prioritised; at least in theory.
The implication is that the government is not trying to press local authorities into approving applications for shale drilling. But while the guidance and planning framework is relatively balanced, the recent ministerial statement on local planning and shale makes clear the government’s intention:
‘The coalition government believes shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs… The government is creating the right framework to accelerate shale gas development in a responsible and sustainable way.’
Talk of acceleration has unnerved some residents in areas where applications are being made. Those residents would have been even more distressed to learn that:
‘The government is minded to amend existing secondary legislation in relation to application requirements and fees for onshore oil and gas development. We believe that greater clarity in law will help provide certainty to councils and encourage investment. We will undertake a short consultation on our suggested approach, before putting our proposals before Parliament.’
Government sources say that the aim of these clarifying amendments is to avoid judicial review of planning decisions. This is, of course, the business of the executive – and the executive isn’t always so open about its business. Yet that will be of little solace to local campaign groups. Some campaigns are seeking legal advice, so the amendments will have to be water tight if the government is to succeed.