Onshore drilling debate
Last week there was a short debate in the House of Commons about the Government’s proposals to change the planning procedures for onshore drilling for oil and gas.
The Government has been concerned that the planning process to allow even exploratory drilling has been too slow. Proposals for fracking - the process injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rock so as to extract shale gas - have been particularly controversial. Planning applications for shale gas exploration wells are now taking over a year, and many are being rejected.
The Government has made two proposals. First, shale production would be treated as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, so final planning decisions would be taken by the Government rather than councils.
Second, conventional (non-fracking) drilling would be treated as ‘permitted development’. This would remove the current requirement on companies to apply for planning permission when drilling or sampling a well. I have particular reservations about this, as I know do many of my constituents.
I believe that the ‘below ground’ activity of drilling, including by fracking, can be regulated to ensure that it will not harm the environment. My much bigger concern is about the ‘above ground’ activity, especially lorry movements.
I think it is appropriate that West Sussex County Council is able to assess things like the impact of lorry movements on local communities. I don’t think a major process as disruptive as drilling can be classed as permitted development which doesn’t need planning permission, akin to putting up a garden shed.
There are a number of conventional oil wells in my constituency that operate without public concern because they are sensibly located, for instance near Storrington. In over 13 years as an MP I have not received a single complaint about these.
However, new wells have been proposed in locations which would mean significant disruption to villages. The proposed exploratory well between Kirdford and Wisborough Green was rightly rejected precisely because of the traffic issues. These have to be assessed properly, and local concerns must be heard.
In the Commons debate, I invited the Minister to look again at the proposals, which I believe go too far. I don’t hold with those who have an ideological objection to any form of oil or gas extraction. But drilling must be properly regulated. We can’t allow the countryside to become carelessly industrialised.
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