On 28 July 2014 the Government announced that the bidding process for licences to explore for onshore oil and gas had been opened and  the process would close at 2 p.m. on 28 October 2014. A link to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) oil and gas licensing rounds webpage is set out below:

https://www.gov.uk/oil-and-gas-licensing-rounds

Of particular interest is the Government’s approach to unconventional hydrocarbon extraction taking place in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and World Heritage Sites. Both at the Licensing stage and at the Planning Application stage safeguards, rather than an outright ban, have been introduced.

Licensing

Baroness Verma’s written ministerial statement on the outcome of  the Strategic Environmental Assessment was also released on 28 July. It states that in terms of the issue of 14th round exploration licences, applicants will have to submit a Statement of Environmental Awareness to demonstrate their understanding of environmental sensitivities relevant to the area proposed for the licence. DECC will require these Statements to be particularly comprehensive and detailed where the areas applied for are in, or adjacent to, any National Park, the Broads, or any AONB or World Heritage Site. If DECC is not satisfied with the Statement then the application for a Licence will be refused.

Planning

A written ministerial statement was also issued on 28 July by Lord Ahmed (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government). In that statement he notes what has been done so far to alter the planning regime for hydraulic fracturing applications:

  1. amended regulations to streamline notification requirements and the calculation of fees;
  2. updated planning guidance on oil and gas development; and the introduction of a streamlined common planning application form.
  1. Lord Ahmed states that:

It is important to note that this Coalition Government recognises that

there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons. For this reason, my Department is today making clear our approach to planning for unconventional hydrocarbons in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites, by providing some additional planning guidance. Proposals for such development must recognise the importance of these sites.

Section 9 of the Minerals Planning Practice Guidance covers hydrocarbon extraction. Within that section the Government’s approach to planning applications for unconventional hydrocarbons is set out:

Where applications represent major development, planning  permission should be refused in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.

Reference is then made back to the National Planning Policy Framework regarding what the assessment needs to comprise

With regard to World Heritage Sites, the Guidance states that:

Where a proposed development for unconventional hydrocarbons would lead to substantial harm to or loss of a World Heritage Site, mineral planning authorities should refuse consent unless wholly exceptional circumstances apply.

Again, reference is made back to the National Planning Policy Framework for the relevant assessment. A link to the Planning Practice Guidance website is set out below:

http://planningguidance.planningportal.gov.uk/

The Planning Practice Guidance finally concludes by noting that planning conditions can be imposed to ensure that development “is made acceptable in planning terms before it can proceed.

In addition, Lord Ahmed’s written statement notes that for the next 12 months from 28 July, in applying the Secretary of State’s policy on recovering planning appeals, DCLG will “give particular attention to recovering appeals for such developments” (i.e. unconventional hydrocarbon development proposals in National Parks, the Broads, AONBs and World Heritage Sites). The position will be reviewed after the 12 month period. It therefore appears that for any developers who choose to appeal an application for permission for unconventional hydrocarbon development in these areas that they are highly likely to find that the appeal is recovered and determined by the Secretary of State rather than one of his Inspectors.

The Government’s proposals have been criticised by some environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace. However, the National Trust has given a cautious welcome although they have stated that protection should be extended further to nature reserves and other wildlife sites including Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The oil and gas industry will be relieved that the Government has not gone as far as to impose an outright ban on obtaining licences and planning permission for unconventional hydrocarbon extraction in certain sensitive areas.