What is Fracking and why is it controversial?

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the process of opening narrow fractures or creating new fractures in gas-rich shale by pumping chemicals, sand and water at high pressures. These fractures allow the gas to flow more freely through the rock and flow to the extraction wells. 

Owing to the variety of environmental impacts caused by the Fracking process, it is often seen as a controversial. The range of impacts can occur locally, such as flooding, groundwater contamination or seismic activity, or have more of a global impact, such as climate change, due to the associated use of fossil fuels.

The increasing use of fracking is seen as a sign that fossil fuels are exhausted due to the more complex and expensive processes used in fracking compared to other fossil fuel extraction methods. Along with increasing calls for climate change mitigation and reduction of the use of fossil fuels, investing in renewable alternative energy sources would be preferred. These impacts cause many anti-fracking protests from environmentalists and local residents.

The Process of Applying for a Fracking Application

The fracking planning application consists of three main phases; exploratory, appraisal and production. Each of these stages requires planning permission from Mineral Planning Authorities who follow the minerals planning policy set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It is required that site restoration and aftercare must also be planned to receive planning permission. 

For each stage, correct planning permissions and relevant licenses must be sought from Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) under the Petroleum Act, the Environment Agency, and the Health and Safety Executive. Once these have been obtained, each application is then judged individually - not considering the demand for oil or gas. However, the sites economic weight can be considered.

The fracking ban was lifted in 2013 by the Cameron-Clegg coalition who were in support of fracking, due to fracking’s economic benefits associated with needing to import less gas and therefore increasing energy security. However, since the ban, the implementation of fracking has been slow. The first fracking production since 2011 began in October 2018 by Cuadrilla in Lancashire, which was delayed due to legal challenges. This was a controversial decision to allow production to go ahead after Cuadrilla caused two minor earthquakes nearby previously. 

Fast-track Fracking Applications

Fracking proposals are often slow due to difficult planning battles, and with many being denied by councils. The current Conservative government tried to speed up the application process in 2015, but have since announced that further changes are required in order to speed the process up further. 

The government want to try to fast track fracking applications further, and have controversially proposed introducing a permitted development right, meaning that no planning application would be required. They are also looking to invest £1.6 million into Mineral Planning Authorities to increase capacity and capability in processing applications, also creating a brokerage service that would help guide companies and authorities through fracking application process. Additionally, they are also looking to change fracking to a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project Regime (NSIP), meaning that proposals would go through national planning and therefore local councils having less involvement in decisions. 

As expected, this proposition has had a widespread opposition and has led to the policy facing legal challenges from Friends of the Earth. Furthermore, this change in planning policy has led to the National Planning Policy Framework (2018) being scrutinized further, with the head of legal from Friends of the Earth stating: “The government’s national planning framework, which directs development in every single community in England, has never been environmentally assessed. This makes a mockery of the government’s green credentials and undermines sustainable development.”

It is clear the UK government are pushing fracking within the UK, but it is unclear on how the policies and applications will change due to the environmental issues and widespread opposition.

 

Eleanor Tilley
Environmental Consultant

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