The Government published Planning Practice Guidance for onshore oil and gas on Friday 19 July. This guidance follows the Government announcement in June that it would not be including onshore oil and gas, including shale gas, within the nationally significant infrastructure project regime (see previous e-bulletin here). The ministerial statement by Baroness Hanham accompanying the guidance makes clear that it should be read alongside other planning guidance and the National Planning Policy Framework.

Baroness Hanham also announced that the Government is minded to amend existing secondary legislation in relation to application requirements and fees for onshore oil and gas development but that before it does so a short consultation will be carried out on the Government's suggested approach. No indication has been given as to when this might come forward.  

1. Main points

The guidance:

  • describes the (existing) mineral planning regime under the Town and Country Planning Act
  • confirms that applications will (as is usual for onshore hydrocarbons drilling) be determined by the Mineral Planning Authority (i.e. the County Council, Unitary Authority or National Park Authority)
  • reiterates the policy in the National Planning Policy Framework that great weight should be given to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy, when determining applications
  • states that authorities should not consider the demand for, or alternatives to, oil and gas resources as Government energy policy makes it clear that supplies should come from a variety of sources including onshore oil and gas.

2. Relationship with other regulatory regimes

The relationship with other regulatory regimes such as health and safety and environmental permitting is set out, which clarifies which issues the planning authority needs to consider and which it can assume will be effectively controlled by other regulators. For example, waste and water discharge fall to be dealt with by the Environment Agency, seismic risk by DECC and well design and construction by the Health and Safety Executive. It is however largely silent on climate change.

3. Environmental Impact Assessment

In terms of environmental impact assessment (EIA), the guidance reiterates the existing requirement that the exploratory and appraisal phases will be subject to screening for the need to undertake an EIA if they exceed the applicable threshold (surface installations for gas extraction of more than half a hectare, or deep drilling where the area of the works exceeds one hectare). EIA is required where such projects are judged likely to have significant environmental impacts.

The guidance states that significant environmental impacts are unlikely to arise for exploratory drilling operations which do not involve hydraulic fracturing unless the location is unusually sensitive. By contrast, the European Parliament has recently proposed that the EIA directive be amended to require EIA for all shale gas projects, including at the exploratory phase, regardless of footprint or whether hydraulic fracturing will be used.

The guidance also clarifies that, for applications in the exploratory phase, only the exploration activities themselves need to be considered and not any future appraisal and production phases which is in line with current EIA guidance and practice. It is likely that the guidance will need to be updated to take into account changes to the EIA directive expected next year.

4. Other points

The guidance sets out model conditions covering ground and surface water, visual impact and landscaping, noise control, dust and air quality, lighting, soils, protected species and restoration and aftercare. These do not include a model condition concerning restrictions on associated traffic movements.

It also states that a financial guarantee to cover restoration and aftercare costs will normally only be justified as a planning requirement in exceptional cases and, where an operator is contributing to an established mutual funding scheme, such a guarantee should not be necessary.

The lack of public consultation on the guidance has been criticised by some MPs, planning professionals and environmental groups.  

5. Next steps

This guidance means that shale gas will be included in the standard minerals planning process for now. Many local planning authorities are in the process of updating their local planning policy so it would be helpful for promoters to keep up to date with this process in areas of interest and participate in public consultation to make representations on any draft policies relating to hydrocarbon extraction and request that any relevant sites are identified in the local plan.  

6. Links

Details of the Consultation on tax proposals for shale gas published at the same time can be found here along with the details of the parliamentary select committee report on shale gas exploration published in May and the industry good practice guidelines published in April.