A new round of bidding for shale gas exploration licenses started today, but the Government has pledged to protect National Parks in England.
The Government has committed to going "all out for shale", claiming development of the gas and oil resource through the controversial process of fracking is needed to improve energy security, boost jobs and the economy and bring down energy prices.
But new guidance unveiled today says applications for developments in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, World Heritage Sites and the Broads should be refused other than in "exceptional circumstances and in the pulic interest".
The Department of Energy and Climate Change said where an application in these areas is refused and the developer launches an appeal, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will consider whether to make the final decision himself to ensure the policy is being properly applied.
Business and energy minister Matthew Hancock said: "Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth. We must act carefully, minimising risks, to explore how much of our large resource can be recovered to give the UK a new home-grown source of energy.
"As one of the cleanest fossil fuels, shale gas can be a key part of the UK's answer to climate change and a bridge to a much greener future. The new guidance published today will protect Britain's great National Parks and outstanding landscapes, building on the existing rules that ensure operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced.
"Ultimately, done right, speeding up shale will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for our country."
The licences provide the first step to starting drilling – but do not give absolute agreement to drill as any application will also require planning permission, as well as permits from the Environment Agency and sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive to begin exploration.
But opponents of onshore drilling say it causes disruption and damaging development in the countryside, fracking can cause minor earthquakes and the risk of water pollution, and that exploiting new oil and gas resources is not compatible with tackling climate change.
Louise Hutchins, Greenpeace UK energy campaigner, said: "The Government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside, including in sensitive areas such as those covering major aquifers.
"Eric Pickles' supposed veto power over drilling in National Parks will do nothing to quell the disquiet of fracking opponents across Britain. Ministers waited until the parliamentary recess to make their move, no doubt aware of the political headache this will cause to MPs whose constituencies will be affected."
Today’s news comes as a six month deadline expired for EU member states exploring for shale gas to present the European Commission with a preliminary overview of the minimum principles they intend to apply on a number of safety issues related to onshore exploration.
These include project planning, assessment of environmental impacts and risks, well integrity, baseline measurements and monitoring, emissions reduction, use of fracturing fluids and the dissemination of information.
Although Commission recommendations are non-binding, the body will be closely monitoring the application of these minimum principles by comparing the situation in member states on a scoreboard that will be publically available in the first half of 2015.
Spokesperson for Shale Gas Europe Marcus Pepperell said: “Europe needs to develop a shale gas industry that works best for Europe. An effective and transparent regulatory and enforcement framework is an essential part of this process.
“Member states are responsible for developing this new indigenous energy source within an environmentally sustainable manner that helps to build public trust and understanding and reassures investors.”