Liz Truss is considering designating fracking sites as nationally important infrastructure, potentially cutting out local communities and breaking a leadership election promise, the Guardian can reveal.
During her campaign to be the Conservative party leader, Truss said new sites would only go ahead with local consent. However, those familiar with discussions in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, say there have been discussions about pushing through sites without local approval by designating them as nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs).
This means they would bypass normal local planning requirements. The designations usually apply to infrastructure such as roads, airports and energy sites.
In parliament on Thursday, Rees-Mogg refused to commit to letting local communities blacklist fracking projects, instead telling MPs that people nearby would be “compensated”.
The Green MP, Caroline Lucas, said on Twitter: “Rees-Mogg squirming as so many of us, including his own backbenchers, challenge him on pledge PM gave that fracking will only happen where there is community consent – and is now endeavouring to pretend that compensation is the same as consent. It is not.”
In 2018, there was widespread opposition when the government consulted on the possibility of making shale gas projects NSIPs. It ended up shelving the plans, writing: “It is our view that, while the UK shale gas industry remains at an early exploratory stage, including the production phase into the … NSIP regime would be premature.”
A British Geographical Society report leaked to the Guardian last week found that forecasting earthquakes caused by fracking “remains a scientific challenge” and that there were still “significant existing knowledge gaps”. On Thursday, the founder of the fracking firm Cuadrilla, which drilled the first modern wells in the UK, said fracking in the UK would be impossible at a meaningful scale and that the government’s support for it was merely “a political gesture”.
However, Truss’s government is keen to approve energy schemes and this would be a way to cut out lengthy planning processes and bypass opposition.
Campaign groups in fracking areas are preparing to protest, write to their MPs and try to use the planning system to stymie any attempt to approve drilling sites. This is because of concerns over the earthquakes caused by drilling for shale gas, and worries the noisy and disruptive infrastructure will affect house prices.
Tom Fyans, the interim chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “We need to be clear what’s at stake here: not just the environment, but the democratic right of the public to object to its destruction. It also leaves the government’s net zero plans in tatters.
“There isn’t a cat in hell’s chance that people will accept fracking in their neighbourhood. It’s wildly unpopular as well as unsafe, which is why it was banned in the first place. That’s why there’s a real fear the government will try to use the planning system to force fracking on to unwilling communities. To do so would be a stunningly ill-judged attack on local democracy.”
Campaigners said that if the government implemented its plans, Truss would have misled the house in her first statement to the Commons when she said fracking would only go ahead with local consent.
Ami McCarthy, a political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Motorways, power stations and airports – love them or hate them, they are nationally important infrastructure. A hole in a muddy field which may produce a very small amount of expensive gas, but probably won’t, is not nationally important infrastructure.
“Pretending it is to get around the high level of local opposition to fracking would not help to dispel this government’s reputation for bending the rules for their mates, particularly when that would mean they’d broken a manifesto commitment.”
Katie Atkinson, the head of planning for North and East Yorkshire CPRE, said they were expecting the government to try to designate the sites as NSIPs.
She said: “It’s certainly something they’ve said they were going to do before, we know it’s sort of looming. It wouldn’t be a popular decision and it would be something we would oppose massively. I really hope they won’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
“Liz Truss said there had to be local support for it. She chose her words carefully. Does that mean local people on the ground or does it mean elected members? If she means the latter, local people could be ignored.”
Wera Hobhouse, the energy and climate spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said: “It is outrageous that Conservative ministers are prepared to impose dangerous drilling on communities. People are understandably frightened that fracking could be devastating for their local countryside and hopes for tackling climate change. Their voices must be heard. To cause such destruction for drilling which even the chancellor admits won’t bring down energy prices shows this government has lost the plot.”
Rees-Mogg’s team did not deny that designating fracking projects as NSIPs was under consideration.