I fully understand and appreciate people's concerns about fracking, but let me reassure you that the Government is creating a regulatory regime that provides clear, strong protections for the environment.
These protections are provided for in the Infrastructure Act 2015. The Act forbids the Secretary of State from issuing consent for fracking if it would take place within a 'protected groundwater source area'. Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing Regulations clearly set out what is meant by this, and ensure that fracking would be banned at depths of less than 1,200 metres within 50 metres of a point where water used for domestic or food purposes is extracted. Drinking water is not normally found below 400 metres. This limit therefore provides at least 800 metres between the depth of most drinking water sources and the highest possible level at which hydraulic fracturing can take place. The regulations also ban fracking in zones through which groundwater (again used for domestic or food purposes) travels for 50 days before it reaches an abstraction point.
I therefore believe that these regulations will provide suitable protection against any health risks, so I support them. The Government's approach is guided by the Environment Agency, and with these protections in place, I think it is right that we explore and make use of shale gas and oil. The opportunity to extract this energy, as well as to secure jobs and investment, cannot be ignored.
Regulations now protect some of the country's most beautiful areas, including National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, meaning shale gas exploration cannot take place at depths of less than 1,200 metres in these areas. The Government is also committed to banning wells drilled at the surface of these areas or within Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
Local communities must and will remain fully involved in planning decisions. Ministers have set up a £1.2 million support programme to ensure authorities have the resources to make planning decisions in a timely manner.
I believe that we need a diverse energy mix, and that shale gas can play a part in that.
Shale development has the potential to deliver substantial economic benefits to the UK economy and for local communities where supplies are located. I am glad that the Government remains committed to protecting the environment and ensuring that shale exploration happens safely. Planning decisions on shale exploration applications remain disappointingly slow, which is why I welcome the announcement of a range of measures to help speed up these decisions.
A consultation has been launched to consider whether the early stages of shale exploration should be treated as permitted development, and in particular the circumstances where this might be appropriate. This would allow early exploratory work to proceed without requiring planning applications, although planning applications would still be required for fracking.
Other measures include strengthening community engagement by consulting on the potential to make pre-application consultations a statutory requirement, and launching a new £1.6 million shale support fund over the next two years to build capacity in local authorities dealing with shale applications.
A new Planning Brokerage Service for shale applications will also be created, to provide guidance to developers and local authorities on the planning process in order to speed up decision making. Furthermore, to simplify the complex UK regulatory regime for shale gas, a new Shale Environmental Regulator will also be set up, to act as a single coherent face for the public, mineral planning authorities, and industry.
I am confident that these measures will help speed up decision making on shale applications, whilst protecting our environment and ensuring that the voices of local communities are heard.