Go-ahead for gas and oil exploration could open swathes of UK up to fracking, say campaigners

A green light for onshore gas and oil exploration could lead to fracking in some of the UK's most protected areas, campaigners have warned.

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 the Task Force for Shale Gas - an industry-backed body - found that 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.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said licences included permission for shale exploration in three national parks and six "areas of outstanding natural beauty".

Credit: andrealeadsom.com

The government 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.

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.

The lavender fields on the hilltops of the Howardian Hills, one of the areas of outstanding natural beauty that has been licensed by the OGA. Credit: PA

Greenpeace energy campaigner Hannah Martin said the move was "bizarre and irresponsible" just days after the historic international deal to tackle climate change was agreed.

The blocks released by the OGA relate to squares of land which 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.