Revised requirements relating to planning applications for onshore oil and gas and the need for Environmental Impact Assessments
The UK government are currently considering responses to the consultation paper issued last month into their proposals to revise the current requirements relating to planning applications for onshore oil and gas in England. This is the latest initiative by government to streamline and simplify the procedures for energy companies to extract shale gas and follows on the heels of the planning guidance published in July this year, alongside proposals for a new tax regime for shale gas.
The proposals appear to recognise the difficulty energy companies have in defining with any clarity, at the time of submission of a planning application, the extent of the land underground where drilling will take place and the potential route of any lateral drilling. Amendments are proposed to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2010, to remove the requirement to notify owners and tenants of land, below which underground drilling may occur, of any planning application for the exploration or extraction of shale gas. The requirement to notify owners and tenants of development of land above ground, i.e. the erection of drilling rigs, associated plants and infrastructure and temporary buildings is retained. The existing publicity requirements for such applications will also continue to apply with additional requirements in areas of England where no parish exists.
A standard planning application form for onshore oil and gas developments including shale gas operations is also proposed, to ensure consistency between local planning authorities in processing such planning applications.
Revisions to the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) Regulations 2012 are also canvassed within the consultation paper, to ensure that only above ground workings are taken into account in calculating any fee payable for onshore oil and gas developments including shale gas.
In contrast to the stance taken by the UK government to streamline the planning process for shale gas, the European Parliament’s recent vote for mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for unconventional gas projects including shale gas, has created uncertainty in the shale gas industry. The proposed amendments to the EIA Directive, if adopted by the European Parliament and the European Council, would require the preparation of an EIA for any exploration of shale gas involving the application of hydraulic fracturing, regardless of the amount of gas extracted. This would represent a change to the current requirement for an EIA for the commercial extraction of gas in excess of 500,000m3 daily. The move has divided the Council of the EU with member states gearing up for an intense debate on the issue. Such a requirement for a mandatory EIA for shale gas exploration involving hydraulic fracturing could not only slow down the planning application process for shale gas by up to a year or more but threaten the UK s energy strategy and its economic revival on the back of shale gas.