Calls grow for single fracking regulator

As the UK shale gas industry struggles to win public confidence, calls are increasing for the creation of a single regulatory body that would simplify the complex regulatory framework currently in place.

Speaking at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) shale gas and integrated water management conference in London yesterday, chair of the Task Force on Shale Gas and former chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Chris Smith said that communities needed a single regulatory body that they could put their trust in.

His comments reitterated the findings of the body's first report on planning, regulation and local engagement published in March. "We felt that the regulatory landscape for shale gas and in fact for all onshore extractive industries is over complex, " he said. "Not just for the industry, but for communites who are affected to know who it is they ought to put their trust in. DECC are involved, the EA are involved, the HSE are involved. We recommended there should be a single regulatory body in due course taking over and grouping together all the responsibilities of those three bodies."

"There should be a single regulatory body in due course taking over and grouping together all the responsibilities of those three bodies [DECC, EA and HSE]"

Lord Chris Smith, Task Force on Shale Gas

Smith's comments follow findings from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which in a report last year which blamed regulatory log jam for the lack of progress on shale gas.

"Our report shows that unnecessary duplication and diffusion of authority are still rife throughout the regulatory process. The Government must do more to simplify regulation to ensure that exploratory drilling and development can go ahead. Regulation around shale should be robust, but should move quickly and be easy to understand,”said Lord MacGregor, chairman of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee which produced the report.

Despite efforts to clarify the regime by DECC which in December 2013 published a regulatory roadmap, it remains fragmented and complex. It begins with issuance of a petroleum development licence by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to operators covering set areas. Operators must then negotiate access to the site with landowners and gain permission from the local coal authority if the proposed well encroaches on coal seams.

The energy company then needs to seek planning permission from the local minerals planning authority (MPA), which in England means the local county council. To get planning permission the developer must obtain environmental permits from the Environment Agency including mining waste permits, groundwater permits and radioactive waste permits.  

Meanwhile the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regulates all aspects of construction and operation must also be consulted on the well design and this approved by an independent examiner; and the British Geological Survey must be notified of the intent to drill. Finally if planning conditions are met, and all permits approved, DECC will give consent to drill.

"A single regulator is long, long overdue,"

Martin Salter, Angling Trust

The first two sites to seek planning permission since a fracking moratoruim imposed by government was lifted in December 2012 were refused permission earlier this month after months of delays. During the meeting to consider the application members of Lancashire's Development Control Committee highlighted their concerns over the complex regulatory system.

Other experts agreed with the Task Force findings. "We would agree with Lord Smith in that a single regulator is long, long overdue," said Martin Salter, national campaigns coordinator for the Angling Trust which produced its own report "Are we fit to frack?" with other NGOs including the RSPB, the National Trust in March 2014.

The UK Task Force on Shale Gas is funded by energy companies but maintains a position of impartiality and independence, and this was reitterated by Lord Smith at the CIWEM event. A second report from the body which looks at local environmental impacts is due to be published in 10 days time.

This is expected to focus on water considerations including contamination threats, wastewater and water requirements, and will advise that water must be piped to site and not trucked in as some sites in the US have done. A third report covering climate change is scheduled for September with a fourth on economic impacts in December.

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