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David Cameron’s Shale Policy Torpedoed By Green Quango

Emily Gosden, The Daily Telegraph

David Cameron’s plans to kick-start shale gas fracking faced a fresh setback after the environmental regulator said energy companies could face a six month wait to secure permits – despite a government pledge to cut the process to less than a fortnight.

In a development that will be welcomed by those concerned about shale gas, the Environment Agency (EA) said the “current level of public interest” in fracking meant that the permitting process was likely to be extended to allow for more consultation.

In June, the Treasury pledged the government would take a series of measures “designed to kick start the shale gas industry in the UK” including plans for the EA to “significantly reduce the time it takes to obtain environmental permits for exploration”.

It said the EA would ensure shale gas permits – which currently take a varying length of time – would be issued within a “standard 13 week period” by September and then “within 1-2 weeks” by February.

But in a consultation document, the EA has now said that current public attention on the process means the regulator is “likely” to “treat such sites as being of high public interest”.

The standard timescale would therefore not apply and could require lengthier consultation or a second round of consultation. “Where there is a lot of public interest, determining a permit may take four to six months” or potentially even longer, it said.

“The main factors affecting the timeframe are the quality of the application and how locally contentious the site is,” the EA said. “Good quality applications and local support through effective engagement generally result in faster determinations and more effective public consultations.”

The Prime Minister this week gave his strongest backing yet to shale gas in the UK, saying he did not want Britain to miss out on “cheaper energy”.

Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to release gas trapped in the rocks. Opponents fear it could contaminate water supplies or cause earthquakes.

Simon Colvin, energy expert at law firm Pinsent Masons warned the EA’s plans represented “another layer of red tape” for a process that was “already time consuming and costly”.

“This is a policy statement by the EA which has the potential to delay the exploration of shale gas resources in the UK,” he said.

“The ‘high public interest’ status could mean an extremely lengthy process, taking into account a number of rounds of community consultation.

“Public consultation is of course essential and communities should be given the opportunity to voice concerns. But a balance needs to be struck between public scrutiny and providing an adequate and appropriate regulatory environment for the burgeoning energy source.”

An EA spokesperson said it would treat shale gas exploration permit applications “on a case by case basis” and was “committed to developing standard rules permits for oil and gas exploration, which will speed up the permitting process”.

The Prime Minister vowed this week: “Nothing is going to happen in this country unless it’s environmentally safe.”

But critics have questioned the EA’s capabilities to monitor the industry after it was forced to revise regulations following a legal challenge from campaign group Friends of the Earth.

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