Environmentalists have condemned measures announced by ministers aimed at making it easier for firms to explore shale gas deposits and carry out fracking.
Business Secretary Greg Clark set out a series of steps to streamline the “disappointingly slow” planning process and create “the world’s most environmentally robust onshore shale gas sector”.
But environmentalists reacted with fury to the plans, which include a consultation on allowing firms in England to use planning rules similar to those for home extensions to carry out exploratory drilling for gas deposits.
Their concerns were dismissed by petrochemicals giant Ineos, which said delays in exploiting UK gas was leading the country to become dependent on imports from Russia and the Middle East.
In a statement to Parliament, Mr Clark said there were potentially “substantial benefits from the safe and sustainable exploration and development” of onshore shale gas.
He said: “A potential new shale gas exploration and production sector in the shale basins of England could provide a new economic driver.
“We also see an opportunity to work with industry on innovation to create a ‘UK model’ – the world’s most environmentally robust onshore shale gas sector – and to explore export opportunities from this model, a core theme of our modern industrial strategy.”
Under the plans there would be a consultation this summer on the principle of whether non-hydraulic fracturing shale gas exploration development should be treated as “permitted development”, which would not require planning permission.
Other elements of the plan include the creation of a Shale Environmental Regulator, a new watchdog bringing together the work currently done by the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive and the Oil and Gas Authority.
Greenpeace UK’s head of politics Rebecca Newsom accused ministers of “trampling over democracy to prop up this collapsing industry”.
She said: “Communities and their local councils across the UK have said no in every way they can, but the Government have turned a deaf ear to everyone who doesn’t own fossil fuel company.
“In their commitment to extract more gas than we can afford to burn, they are trying to remove planning control from everyone who understands their local area and make exploratory drilling as easy as building a garden wall or conservatory.”
Friends of the Earth spokeswoman Rose Dickinson said :”The Government’s plans pervert the planning process and could make England’s landscape a wild west for whatever cowboy wants to start drilling and digging up our countryside.
“Permitted development was meant to help people build a fence or a conservatory, not drill for gas. “
Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “Fracking should be banned, not promoted.
“But the Government is encouraging this dirty fossil fuel by making the planning application easier and creating a special fracking regulator.”
Lib Dem spokeswoman Baroness Featherstone said: “It is desperately disappointing that the Government have announced today that they will be altering planning law to make it easier for the frackers.”
Green co-leader Caroline Lucas said: “These latest measures utterly undermine the Government’s green rhetoric – and show that the Tories simply can’t shake their support for fossil fuel firms.”
But Lynn Calder, commercial director of Ineos Shale, welcomed the Government’s announcement as a “step in the right direction” and claimed “some environmentalists inhabit a la-la-land where renewable energy is a magical force that is always available”.
She said: “The UK potentially has enough home-grown gas to be self-sufficient for years to come.
“But labyrinthine planning rules make it next to impossible to access the energy right beneath our feet.
“As a result, the UK is becoming ever more dependent on Russian and Middle Eastern gas, with British money funding foreign powers at the rate of £500 million a month instead of generating jobs and tax revenues in this country.”