The UK government on Tuesday handed out dozens of new drilling licenses to energy companies looking to launch fracking operations in the country's rural areas, just days after officials imbued ministers with new powers to fast-track fossil fuel exploration against residents' wishes.
The Oil and Gas Authority issued 27 new drilling licenses to 12 energy firms, covering roughly 1,000 square miles of northern UK. Another 132 licenses are expected to come later this year.
From here, the companies will have to apply for drilling permits from local councils. But new rules adopted last week will now make it easier for government officials to step in and approve such bids without waiting for their decisions. That could open up swaths of UK land to harmful and controversial drilling operations like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves shooting water and chemicals at high pressures into rock formations that hold shale gas.
Climate activists who have been fighting the expansion slammed the issuing of new licenses.
"This is the starting gun on the fight for the future of our countryside," said Daisy Sands, head of Greenpeace UK's energy campaign. "Hundreds of battles will spring up to defend our rural landscapes from the pollution, noise and drilling rigs that come with fracking."
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Sands also noted that the move comes just weeks after Lancashire County officials rejected a bid by energy firm Cuadrilla to open up a fracking site in the area. Cuadrilla was one of the 12 companies which received a drilling license on Tuesday.
"It seems clear that the government is responding to the vigorous lobbying from the fracking companies by ignoring both the economic and environmental evidence that clean, renewable energy is a far better bet for investment and the planet," Sands said.
Added Andrew Pendleton, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth UK, "Offering licenses to frack will cause yet more anxiety for people living under the cloud of fracking. The Government is allowing companies to drill right through aquifers that are used to supply household drinking water."