UK ministers were accused of “trampling over democracy” on Thursday after announcing proposals to allow shale gas exploration to go ahead without planning permission.
The government is to consult on whether seismic surveys and test drilling should be treated as “permitted development”, removing the need for planning approval.
Energy minister Claire Perry floated the idea as part of a package of measures to streamline development of UK shale resources.
Geological surveys have indicated the presence of significant untapped gas across the Midlands and north of England, raising hopes of a US-style shale boom.
However, efforts to commercialise the resources have been held up by opposition from environmental groups and local communities to the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, required to release gas from shale rock.
Planning permission would still be required for fracking, which involves injection of water, sand and chemicals at high-pressure to open cracks in the rock. But the consultation would consider whether earlier exploratory work could proceed without it.
A new regulatory body would be set up to oversee the planning process for shale developments, bringing greater co-ordination between environmental and health and safety agencies, as well as local authorities.
Ms Perry said the government wanted to ensure exploration happened “in the most environmentally responsible way while making it easier for companies and local communities to work together”.
Greenpeace, the environmental group, said the government was trying to make shale drilling “as easy as building a garden wall or conservatory”.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England described the proposals as “an outright assault on local communities’ . . . democratic rights”, with “disastrous” consequences for “the health and tranquillity of our countryside, landscapes and environment”.
Ms Perry said the government was making good on the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to support shale exploration. “British shale gas has the potential to help lower bills and increase the security of the UK’s energy supply while creating high-quality jobs,” she added.
Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, the company aiming to start fracking later this year at a site near Blackpool in Lancashire, welcomed Ms Perry’s push to make the planning process “faster and fairer”.
“Our planning permission to drill and test just four shale gas exploratory wells in Lancashire was granted after a lengthy and costly three-year process.” he said. “These timelines must improve if the country is to benefit from its own, much needed, indigenous source of gas.”