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Hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) is a technique used to extract gas or oil from subterranean rock. The process involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals (known as ‘fracturing fluid’) at high pressure into horizontally drilled boreholes to fracture the rock and release gas or oil. Hydraulic fracturing is not a new technique and has been carried out both offshore and onshore in the UK for many years. However, fracking for shale gas in the UK had only reachedthe very early stages (exploration).

On 2 November 2019, the UK Government announced that it would take a presumption against issuing any further Hydraulic Fracturing Consents in England. All the main opposition parties (Labour, Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party) are opposed to fracking and have committed to stop or ban the practice. Similarly, each of the devolved Administrations have planning measures in place which prevent or create a presumption against unconventional oil and gas development (which includes shale gas). The licensing of onshore oil and gas has been devolved to Scotland and Wales. The Scottish Government confirmed its final policy position of no support for unconventional oil and gas in October 2019; the Welsh government confirmed that fracking would not be supported in Wales in December 2018.

Prior to its November 2019 announcement, the UK Government was encouraging shale gas exploration to determine its potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. The Government had introduced a number of measures to support such exploration, including:

  • Sharing the proceeds of the wealth generated with communities affected;
  • Proposing legislation to change planning law and policy;
  • Setting up a new Shale Environmental Regulator.

Before commencing drilling operations for onshore oil and gas development (including shale gas) an operator must attain several permissions, including a petroleum exploration and development licence (PEDL), planning permission (unless permitted development rights apply) and environmental permits. For hydraulic fracturing for shale the last of these permissions is a Hydraulic Fracturing Consent issued by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which is only issued once a list of pre-conditions are satisfied. Prior to the Government’s presumption against issuing such consents, only two such consents were issued: both to Cuadrilla Bowland Ltd for two separate wells on its Preston New Road Site in Lancashire. Work at these sites has been paused.

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