The Opposition Labour Party has confirmed it will support Government plans to change trespass laws to allow shale gas companies to drill under homes without the owner's permission, according to Energy Minister Michael Fallon.
In a speech to the UK Shale 2014 conference, the DECC chief stated controversial proposals to allow the ground under properties to be fracked had now achieved cross-party consensus.
Labour’s support means the law change will now pass through Parliament unhindered following the completion of an ongoing consultation exercise in August.
The current trespass laws require people to give consent for shale gas and oil drilling under their property, but in the Queen’s Speech this month the Government announced that it will change the law to end this requirement in order to fast-track fracking.
The move could become a contentious issue in next year’s general election as disillusioned voters continue to complain of being disengaged with the political decision-making processes.
A recent YouGov survey of 1,898 people found that 74% opposed the controversial move, which underpins efforts to drive a "shale gas revolution" that could see fracking across swathes of the UK.
More than 45,000 people around the country have already joined legal moves to block energy companies from fracking under their properties, but a change to the trespass laws could allow companies to explore for shale gas without needing their permission.
The survey found that 73% of Conservative voters and 70% of Liberal Democrat supporters did not agree with changing the law to make it easier to drill under people's homes.
The poll commissioned by Greenpeace also revealed 80% of Labour voters and 77% of those planning to vote UKIP opposed the move.
Respected Labour MP Alan Whitehead, a member of the Energy and Climate Change committee, publicly criticised the Government for proposing to allow fracking companies to drill under peoples' homes without their permission.
Speaking after this month’s Queen’s Speech, Mr Whitehead, the MP for Southampton Test, said: “The change in the law that the Government has outlined is extremely concerning, especially for our area, which has both a sensitive natural environment and potential shale gas reserves.
“It effectively means that once a shale company has a licence to frack, they will be allowed to drill anywhere they wish within the area of their licence, be that in areas of national parkland or under people’s homes.
“The Government is basically denying homeowners and public bodies the right to challenge fracking under their properties, which is against the wishes of the majority of the British public.
“I have long argued that we have to be clear about what the real consequences of fracking might be. This proposal will mean that property owners will have even less ways to make their voice heard about the issue.”
However, Energy Minister Michael Fallon today confirmed the plans would be supported by Labour.
He told delegates attending the UK Shale event at the Hotel Russell in London: “We’ve announced two million pounds of public money to support companies looking to develop innovative processes for shale exploration or production, to help UK firms develop products and services in this new sector. All of these steps will encourage the responsible development of shale gas and oil.
“However, industry has argued that addressing underground access is essential to the success of shale in the UK.
“We have considered those arguments carefully and believe that the existing system does not strike the right balance between the legitimate interests and concerns of landowners, and the benefits to the community and nation at large of permitting development, where that development is otherwise acceptable in planning and environmental terms.
“Similar issues affect the nascent geothermal sector.
“Our new proposals, now out for consultation, aim to address this problem by simplifying procedures which are costly, time-consuming and disproportionate for new methods of underground drilling.
“There are three elements to the proposal: a right of underground access below 300m for shale and deep geothermal companies, a community payment in return for access and a notification system for the community,
“Allowing underground access at depths below 300m can have no impact on landowners – this is a six inch hole, ten times the depth of the deepest tube platform. We expect fracking to take place over a mile down.
“There is cross-party consensus on this issue – I welcome confirmation that the Labour Party will not oppose our plans in Parliament. Our proposals ensure that safety remains at the heart of shale production - this does not change any other aspect of the existing regulatory system, such as procedures for surface access, planning or environmental permits, or safety controls.
“The consultation runs until August and we will consider the responses before confirming our plans.”
Mr Fallon said he had also signed orders to implement further changes that will allow onshore oil and gas licence holders to retain larger land areas than before.
Conventional oil and gas is typically concentrated in small areas holding large volumes of fossil fuels, but shale gas is more dispersed.
"These changes will reduce costs to the licensee but they won't lead to land-banking as plans for meaningful activity will have to be approved," he told the industry conference.
The Minister also said he had signed an order to cut the confidentiality period on flow rates and fracking data to six months from four years to improve transparency.