The UK government has lost a high court ruling over its guidance on fracking, which may force it to overhaul its advice on whether the controversial gas extraction technique can help combat climate change.
Campaign group Talk Fracking had brought the case, arguing the government had failed to consider the latest scientific evidence when formulating its advice to local councils that fracking could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also argued the government had failed to carry out a lawful public consultation on its recent revision of the policy.
Mr Justice Dove ruled that the government’s planning guidance was unlawful as scientific evidence provided by the campaign group to the government’s consultation was “never in fact considered relevant or taken into account”.
“What appears clear on the evidence is that the material from Talk Fracking, and in particular their scientific evidence as described in their consultation response, was never in fact considered relevant or taken into account, although . . . this material was relevant to the decision which was advertised,” the judge said in his ruling. “The defendant’s evidence makes clear that this material was not considered.”
The ruling comes at a delicate time for the government, which has supported the development of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing as a means of boosting domestic gas supply.
Fracking, as the technique is commonly known, has little support among the broader public according to the government’s own surveys and parliament has placed such tight environmental regulations on the practice, the industry says its development is untenable.
The parties must now submit arguments to the court proposing what the government should do as a result of the ruling.
Depending on what the judge rules, the government might have to revise its guidance to local councils. But it is unlikely to have an immediate impact on where fracking is approved.
Talk Fracking is one of a host of groups that opposes the nascent industry in the UK, warning it risks causing pollution and contributing to climate change.
Claire Stephenson, who brought the claim on behalf of Talk Fracking, said: “The government have continually sought to ignore public opinion on fracking, despite the overwhelming opposition on a national level.
“The lack of public consultation and the unbiased support for an industry, without any substantial underlying evidence, has been a cause for concern.”
Ms Stephenson said the “acknowledgment” from the judge that climate change was a legitimate consideration for campaigners and councils assessing fracking planning applications was “a big win”.
The UK government has championed gas as a complement to growing supplies of renewable energy and as an alternative to more highly polluting coal.
But as coal usage in the UK has declined rapidly in recent years, led by efforts to boost the price of carbon emissions for industry, the role of gas as the last major fossil fuel in the UK energy mix has come under greater scrutiny.
Fracking has helped transform the US into a major gas and oil exporter in the last decade, but critics contend the much smaller landmass of the UK makes it less suited to the technique — which involves blasting shale rock with sand and chemicals to free hydrocarbons.
Gas, while less polluting than burning coal or oil, still releases CO2 while leaks of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, are also a concern for environmental campaigners.
A spokesman for the local government department said: “We note the judgment in the case brought by Talk Fracking, and will now consider our next steps.”
The government won a second case against Friends of the Earth that had argued the National Planning Policy Framework had been adopted unlawfully without consideration for the environment.
Get alerts on Shale Oil & Gas when a new story is published