In the first blog of this two-part series, we considered the potential impact of the 14th Round on the commercialisation of the shale gas in the UK in light of recent developments in this industry.

This second blog post focusses on the additional planning guidance for licence applications in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites, which was simultaneously released with the announcement of the 14th Round on 28 July 2014.

As we noted in part one, the 14th Round is the first opportunity for bidders to obtain onshore PEDLs following the release of a study that estimated the UK has a potentially vast amount of shale reserves. The 14th Round is also the first licensing round to follow protests in 2013 by members of the public at Cuadrilla’s site in Balcombe in West Sussex, after which Cuadrilla did not pursue fracking activities at the site. Shortly after these events, the UK Government published a new Environmental Report for public consultation, which assessed the likely significant effects of the draft Licensing Plan for the 14th Round.

Responses to the consultation showed that there was “strong support for the exclusion from licensing of environmentally sensitive sites”. The announcement of tighter planning guidelines acknowledged these such concerns and expressed the need to “create the right framework to accelerate unconventional oil and gas development in a sustainable way”.

On 28 July 2014, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a Tory communities minister, clarified the Government’s approach to the exploration of unconventional hydrocarbons, stating 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.”

The planning guidance attempts to strike this “careful balance” by requiring mineral planning authorities to give “great weight” to “conserving [the] landscape and scenic beauty” of National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty when considering applications for unconventional hydrocarbon development in such areas. Further, where applications represent “major development” in such areas, planning permission should be refused, “except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest”.[1]  In relation to World Heritage Sites, mineral planning authorities should “refuse consent unless wholly exceptional circumstances apply”.[2]

In addition, licence applicants will be required to submit a Statement of Environmental Awareness to demonstrate their understanding of environmental sensitivities relevant to the area proposed for licence.[3]

The planning guidance does not exclude the possibility of licensing fracking activities in even the most significant of the UK’s environmentally sensitive areas, should such activities be considered capable of deriving an exceptional benefit. Proponents of the shale gas industry in the UK, and its potential economic and energy security-related benefits for the nation, would view this as a pragmatic approach to balancing the possibility of exploiting highly lucrative hydrocarbon reserves against preserving the UK’s landscape.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the announcement has not silenced all of the critics of fracking activities in the UK. Greenpeace UK reiterated its opposition to fracking in light of the 28 July 2014 announcement. In March 2014, the National Trust publicly advocated a complete ban on fracking in National Parks. In a 28 July 2014 press release, the National Trust welcomed the Government’s new planning proposals, but also suggested that the scope of the planning guidance should extend further still, to cover “nature reserves and other wildlife sites like Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) as well”.

The 14th Round expands the possibility for increased commercial exploitation of shale gas in the UK, while also attempting to balance new exploration activities with concerns to safeguard the UK’s most significant environmental sites. These developments are likely to be of interest to energy companies considering investment in unconventional gas in the UK; this appears to be the hope of the UK Government, which is taking steps to actively encourage the future development of the UK’s shale gas industry. However, it remains to be seen whether the latest licensing round will be a “game changer” for the shale gas industry in the UK or public attitudes towards the impact of fracking activities on the UK’s countryside.

[1] The assessment that needs to be carried out is set out in paragraph 116 of the National Planning Policy Framework.

[2] The test to be considered by mineral planning authorities is set out in paragraph 133 of the National Planning Policy Framework.

[3] Statement by Baroness Verma on the outcome of the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) which has been conducted for further onshore licensing. []