1.The debate over whether fracking should take place has long proved controversial at both local and national level. While a majority in a previous Parliament consented to fracking in the UK by means of the Infrastructure Act 2015 and the Government has repeatedly voiced its support for fracking, at the heart of deciding whether fracking developments should be approved are Mineral Planning Authorities (MPAs), which are tasked with determining planning applications for such developments with due regard to a significant body of guidance. As the number of planning applications for shale gas and oil extraction is likely to grow in the coming years, and as some fracking sites are moving beyond exploration to production, we decided that now was the right time to review whether the planning guidance on fracking and the existing planning regime are fit for purpose for all parties.
2.Our inquiry focused on whether the existing planning guidance for fracking planning applications should be updated, improved and consolidated, how MPAs balance local and national need in determining fracking planning applications, and whether such applications should be dealt with under the Planning Act 2008 as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP). This Report sets out our key conclusions and recommendations, which we call on the Government to implement, particularly in light of the consultations and measures announced in the Government’s Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) on fracking planning policy of 17 May (herein referred to as the ‘2018 WMS’).
3.We were disappointed that the Government decided to publish a WMS on fracking planning policy during the course of our inquiry. The 2018 WMS contained measures and areas of interest that had been raised during our oral evidence sessions and in written submissions to the inquiry. Publishing it the sitting day before our final evidence session with the Government meant that we were unable to explore its contents more widely with our witnesses. The Minister for Housing attempted to justify the untimely decision to publish the WMS by saying that “this was a manifesto commitment that we were looking to give effect to… we are approaching an important moment at the exploration stage; later this year we may see the first shale gas extraction since 2011. There is a real operational need to get on with this”. While we acknowledge the Government’s reasons, we see no reason why the Government could not have delayed the 2018 WMS by a matter of weeks to take into account our findings or, indeed, before our inquiry began so all witnesses would have been able to comment on it.
4.We note that there is considerable public interest in whether fracking should be permitted and that previous parliamentary inquiries of other select committees have considered the need for and impact of fracking. We did not consider the merits of fracking, or specific changes to the planning guidance that were based on the environmental impacts of fracking because it is not within our remit. However, as noted in Chapter 2, we did consider the effects on MPAs of possible inconsistencies in the Government’s wider approach to fracking and energy policy.
5.In the course of our inquiry concerns were raised about the definition of fracking used both in the planning guidance but also in our inquiry. Notwithstanding our later comments in Chapter 2 on the definition of fracking within the planning context, our report uses the term “fracking” to refer to “the process of opening and/or extending existing narrow fractures or creating new ones (fractures are typically hairline in width) in gas or oil-bearing rock, which allows gas or oil to flow into wellbores to be captured”. We feel it is appropriate that this definition, abstracted from the National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG), makes no reference to the substance, or the volume of substance, that is used to artificially fracture rock.
6.We are grateful to everyone who contributed to our inquiry. We received over 200 written submissions, of which the majority were from members of the public. The key themes of the written evidence were explored in three oral evidence sessions with contributions from fracking operators, anti-fracking campaigners, MPAs, other regulatory bodies, and Ministers from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
1 , 16 September 2015; , 25 January 2018; , 17 May 2018
2 , 17 May 2018
4 Environmental Audit Committee, Eight Report of Session 2014–15, Environmental risks of fracking, HC856; Environment Food & Rural Affairs Committee, Defra’s responsibilities for fracking, following , September 2014; Energy & Climate Change Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2012–13, The impact of shale gas on energy markets, HC 785, and Fifth Report of Session 2010–12, Shale gas, HC 798; Welsh Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2014–15, Energy generation in Wales: Shale gas, HC 284; Economic Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2013–14, The Economic Impact on UK Energy Policy of Shale Gas and Oil, HL 172.
5 See Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations and Research () and Weald Action Group ().
Published: 5 July 2018