Green light given for exploration of 'significant' swathe of shale prospects
New licences for onshore gas and oil exploration in 159 blocks have been granted in a move campaigners say could open swathes of the country to fracking.
Regulator the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) has granted 93 onshore licences, with around three quarters of the 159 blocks relating to unconventional shale oil or gas exploration.
OGA chief executive Andy Samuel said: " This round enables a significant amount of the UK's shale prospects to be taken forward to be explored and tested."
Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said: "Last month we set out the vital role gas will play in the UK's transition to a low-carbon future.
"The licences offered today move us a step closer - driving forwards this industry which will provide secure, home-grown energy to hard-working families and businesses for decades to come."
She said the Task Force for Shale Gas - an industry-backed body - had found with the right standards in place fracking could take place safely, and said "we need to get shale gas moving".
But environmental groups oppose the opening up of the countryside to fracking for fossil fuels, a move which comes just days after the UK backed the world's first universal climate agreement to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
And the chairman of Task Force for Shale Gas, Lord Chris Smith, warned there was no medium or long term future for gas in the energy mix without developing technology to capture its carbon emissions and store them permanently underground.
Earlier this week he described the Government's move to cancel a £1 billion competition to develop carbon capture and storage on power stations as "absurd".
The Government has also faced criticism this week after it won a vote to allow fracking to take place under national parks, world heritage sites and other protected areas.
Energy giant Ineos said it had been awarded 21 new shale gas licences, making it one of the biggest players in the nascent industry with a total of a million acres under licence.
Chairman Jim Ratcliffe said: "We are delighted with today's announcement.
"The UK government has demonstrated it is determined to move forward with this exciting new industry. This is the start of a shale gas revolution that will transform manufacturing in the UK.
"Ineos has the skills to safely extract the gas and we have already committed to both fully consult and to share the rewards with the local communities. "
Ken Cronin, chief executive of industry body UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), said it was a "vital day" for the future of energy in the UK, which has become increasingly dependent on fossil fuel imports.
"Today is about delivering a balanced energy mix in our country as we move to a lower carbon economy.
"We need to ensure that the 84% of our homes that use gas for heating can continue to do so and that the 30% of electricity produced by gas can be met using UK sources.
"We need to help meet the goals of the Government to eliminate coal from the system and ensure that we can also use gas and oil from our own country to produce products that are so vital to our everyday lives, like clothing, medicines, cosmetics and computers."
The blocks relate to squares of land which the companies will have licence to explore for oil and gas, but they will still need landowner consent, Environment Agency assessments and planning permission before drilling can start.
The process could take several years before exploration, including fracking, takes place.
Adam Marshall, executive director for policy and external affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "Issuing new shale gas licences will be meaningless unless planning permission can actually be secured for projects to get up and running.
"Ministers must take urgent action to pare back the long-winded cycle of applications and appeals, which is undermining both interest and investment in energy projects across the UK."
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said the licence blocks included land for shale exploration in three national parks and six "areas of outstanding natural beauty", opening the possibility for fracking underneath the protected areas.
The national parks with licensing blocks awarded to shale companies are the North York Moors, the Peak District and Exmoor.
The areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) affected by shale exploration are the Forest of Bowland, in Lancashire and North Yorkshire, the Lincolnshire Wolds, Dorset, Cranborne Chase in southern England and the Howardian Hills in Yorkshire.
Emma Marrington, rural policy campaigner at the CPRE, said: " We have always opposed fracking in protected areas, so it is outrageous to see licences announced for fracking underneath three National Parks and five AONBs.
"With a fracking licence issued for the heart of the North York Moors, the National Park could suffer huge environmental, visual and infrastructure intrusion on its perimeter.
"This, and the process in general, makes a mockery of the Government's manifesto pledge to ensure this remains the most beautiful country in the world."
Greenpeace energy campaigner Hannah Martin said the Government's approach to a new fossil fuel industry was "bizarre and irresponsible" just days after the historic international deal to tackle climate change was agreed.
"Even worse, the Government seems to be saying it's open season on the UK's rural landscapes - forcing fracking on a reluctant public and on our most precious areas.
"This announcement means that vast swathes of British countryside have been opened up to fracking," she said.