Fracking might be a controversial proposition, but there is no need to panic just yet. It may be that shale is indeed the solution to our energy crisis, but many are unaware of the complex and tangled web of legal issues to be picked through before anyone puts a drill in the ground.
Fracking involves the extraction of methane gas from layers of shale by pumping high pressure water down a well. But shale gas stocks are legally owned by the Crown, and it is the Crown (via the Department for Energy and Climate Change) which licenses developers to conduct shale gas exploration.
Any developer who wishes to drill for must obtain special consent to do so, and the department can impose numerous conditions on a license to explore the ground below. Planning permission must be obtained firstly from the local council and also from the minerals planning authority before drilling starts – with yet another approval from the Coal Authority if the process interferes with coal seams. Just like the department, councils can impose conditions on planning permission.
If a developer conducts any drilling or fracking without a government licence or without the necessary access rights, this will amount to trespass. Even where the developer has a licence and all rights in place, if a landowner can establish that damage is likely be caused to his property which is not permitted by the licence, he may seek an injunction.
There are also many environmental, health and safety consents that have to be in place – and once fracking starts, regular monitoring of seismic activity is required. A traffic light system, signalling a red warning if any potential danger is perceived, will govern whether works may progress.