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Fracking gets green light as government overturns Lancashire council decision

A Cuadrilla test fracking site in Lancashire.

In what could signal the green light for the government’s plans to develop a shale gas industry on a massive scale, communities secretary Sajid Javid has approved plans for fracking at Cuadrilla's Preston New Road site at Little Plumpton in Lancashire.

Horizontal fracking can go ahead at the site, Javid has announced, in what looks like a landmark ruling for the UK shale gas industry. Local campaigners, environmentalists and local councillors have reacted with anger to the announcement calling it “a denial of local democracy” because two local authorities in the area had opposed Cuadrilla’s request to frack.

The government’s ruling means that for the first time in the UK, shale rock will be fracked horizontally, a process which is expected to yield more gas than the more conventional horizontal fracking method. Announcing the decision, Javid also said that a second site, Roseacre Wood, has not yet been approved for fracking as a result of local concerns over the impact on the area. However, it is believed that Javid is “minded to approve” Cuadrilla's application for Roseacre Wood once road safety issues have been addressed.

Last year, Lancashire County Council refused permission to extract shale gas at both sites on the grounds of noise and traffic impact. Cuadrilla appealed that decision and the government’s announcement this week is the result of that appeal.

Responding to the government’s decision, Lancashire County Council called on the government to do more to address people's concerns about fracking. “It is clear the government supports the development of a shale gas industry, but I would ask them to do more to address the concerns of local communities and the councillors who represent them by supporting the best environmental controls,” a spokesperson said.

Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan tried to allay people’s concerns, saying: “We have been through an exhaustive environmental impact assessment on this and have assessed everything - noise, traffic, water, emissions, etc. The Environment Agency are entirely comfortable with it. It’s good news for us, good news for Lancashire and good news for the UK.”

Justifying his decision, Javid said that the shale gas industry would support 64,000 jobs and provide a new domestic energy source and reduce the UK’s reliance on energy imports. He said that local communities would benefit first from the financial benefits of shale gas as a result of job creation on site and in related areas.

Concerns have been raised about the lack of democracy involved in a process where national government has overturned the democratic decisions of local councils in order to allow fracking The Local Government Association said that it should be “up to local communities to decide, through their locally democratic planning systems, whether or not to host fracking operations in their areas.”

Pam Foster, co-founder of Residents Action on Fylde Fracking, said: “This is a total denial of democracy. Our parish council, our borough council, our county council all threw out this application. We have pursued every democratic channel we can do, there's nothing left for us. We're pretty disgusted and very upset.”

Notwithstanding local protests, it’s clear from this latest decision that the government is intent on going ahead with fracking on the largest scale possible. The move has infuriated environmental campaigners. Friends of the Earth commented that “Fracking goes against everything we need to do to tackle climate change. The government must end its fixation with dirty fossil fuels and focus instead on harnessing the UK's huge renewable energy resource,” they said in a statement.

For Labour, who are pledged to ban fracking, Barry Gardiner, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, said: “The government’s decision bulldozes local democracy and risks locking Britain into an old-fashioned dirty energy infrastructure when we should be seizing the opportunities for new long-term jobs and investment in a clean energy future.”

Cuadrilla expects to begin fracking at the end of 2017. They want to undertake unconventional fracking, drilling wells vertically as well as horizontally. Using the latest technology, the company says that massive amounts of gas could be extracted with relatively little impact above ground. 

Drilling companies believe trillions of cubic feet of shale gas may be recoverable from beneath parts of the UK and more than 200 onshore exploration licences have already been awarded to energy companies. Sajid Javid’s decision to allow fracking on the Little Plumpton site in Lancashire could signal the go ahead for the government to allow shale gas exploration and extraction on a massive scale across the country.