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Fracking planning applications set to rise with new licences offer

The Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) has announced that:

  • 27 onshore blocks from the 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round are to be formally offered to companies
  • A second group of 132 further blocks has been subjected to detailed assessment under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, the findings of which are now out for consultation. Subject to the outcome of that consultation, the OGA will announce offers for the second group of licence blocks later in the year. The licences for all offered blocks will then be granted after the terms and conditions have been finalised.
  • A "block" is an area of land, typically 10km x 10km. The Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence (PEDL), granted under the provisions of the Petroleum Act 1998, affords exclusive rights to licensees "to search and bore for and get petroleum" in all the various stages of oil and gas operations – exploration, appraisal, production and abandonment of wells.
  • The blocks include land in Nottingham, Sheffield, Lincoln and Lancashire.

The licences are likely to result in an uplift in planning applications for fracking. Given the very great public interest these applications generate, this is likely to greatly increase the pressure on local councils to respond quickly to these applications. Furthermore according to the joint announcement from the Department of Energy & Climate Change and Department for Communities and Local Government on 13 August 2015, the Secretary of State will now also consider exercising his call-in power for applications not determined within the 16-week statutory time frame, thereby removing the decision from the local council altogether.

Interestingly, this might not be to the industry's advantage. If an application is called-in, an applicant only has one opportunity to get it right. If the application is refused at the called-in stage, there is no right to a full-merits appeal, as there would be if the application had been determined by the local council.

Dr Ashley Bowes, Barrister at Cornerstone Barristers, who successfully represented a Lancashire residents' group against Cuadrilla's fracking plans in Preston, commented that:

"Whilst this announcement does not grant any rights to frack (that is still subject to detailed planning permission and other permissions) it seems to signal a very strong policy ambition of central government to realise shale gas as a key part of the UK's energy delivery plan. That would appear to be correct when read against the joint statement from DECC and DCLG last week to speed-up the determination of planning applications, via a proactive use of the Secretary of State's call-in powers. With Cuadrilla's Lancashire appeal validated by the Planning Inspectorate this week, it promises to be a crucial year ahead for the shale gas industry."