Ruth Lumley / PA Wire / AP

UK to accept bids for oil and gas exploration despite concerns

British government aims to speed up shale exploration three years after fracking operations caused earthquakes

The British government said Monday that energy companies will be able to bid for licenses to explore onshore oil and gas, a move aimed at speeding up shale exploration.

The move comes three years after the shale drilling process caused seismic tremors, which led the government to suspend operations.

Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said shale gas has the potential to increase the country's energy supply but stressed national parks will be protected.

"Done right, speeding up shale will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for our country," he said.

Oil and gas exploration companies must also obtain planning permission, environmental permits and health and safety approvals before they can receive final go-ahead to drill in Britain.

The government published additional guidance for companies wanting to drill for unconventional oil and gas, such as shale, in areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks and world heritage sites.

In order to drill in such areas, they have to submit "environmental awareness" statements to show they recognize the importance of these sites.

Applications to drill in national parks or world heritage sites will be refused unless there are exceptional circumstances and it is in the public interest, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said.

Drilling for shale gas, a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has proved highly controversial in Britain, with large protests disrupting some operations. The fracking process, which involves injecting water, chemicals and sand into shale rock to extract the gas, is firmly opposed by much of the influential environmental lobby.

Louise Hutchins, Greenpeace U.K. energy campaigner, said the protections on drilling in national parks will not satisfy opponents.

"The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside, including in sensitive areas such as those covering major aquifers," she said.

Fracking near Blackpool, a town in northern England, caused two earthquakes in 2011, with magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5, prompting the government to stop further operations.

A government investigation into the risks of fracking causing more earthquakes concluded that future operations would have to be cautious and must monitor seismic activity.

However, Britain is betting on the development of shale gas to help curb its growing dependence on imports and to stem a decline in oil and gas tax receipts as output from the mature North Sea basin dwindles.

A third of Britain's gas needs can come from its own shale gas by the early 2030s if government policies and economic growth allow firms to invest in gas exploration, the National Grid, a multinational electricity and gas utility company, said this month.

Wire services

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