The possibility that parts of the Burnham-On-Sea area could see fracking for shale gas has moved a step nearer, after the Government sold the rights to explore in 27 different parts of the west country.

Wales-based South Western Energy has secured the sole rights to explore almost all the different locations, which include Burnham-On-Sea, Highbridge, Brean and Berrow – and stretch from Minehead to Trowbridge.

South Western Energy has been offered more than 20 Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences from the Government’s Oil & Gas Authority.

However, the firm will have to apply for individual planning permissions to begin exploring below ground, and then more permissions to actually start fracking.

The controversial process involves high-pressure water and rock solution forced into drilled holes into rocks deep below ground, which force out the gas from the fractured ground.

The Government was severely criticised for giving the green light to fracking at the same time as slashing subsidies for renewable energies like solar power.

The individual licences have been broken down into separate blocks that cover map areas, and gives the right to the firms to ‘search and bore for and get petroleum’, and not to frack itself at the moment.

In West Somerset, there are nine individual squares that run from just inside Exmoor National Park across the northern part of the Quantock Hills’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, around Burnham-On-Sea and Highbridge, and into the Somerset Levels, and north up to Weston-super-Mare and right to the edge of Clevedon, as shown above.

Andy Samuel, chief executive of the Oil & Gas Authority, said the awarding of 97 new licences across the country was a big step forward. “This round enables a significant amount of the UK’s shale prospects to be taken forward to be explored and tested,” he said.

“Upon acceptance of these offers, applicants will be issued with licences and will be able to begin planning their future strategies for exploration activities. These will be subject to further local planning, safety, environmental and other authorisations,” he added.

Several groups of local residents have already been set up in different parts of the region, including one in the Burnham area, and they have vowed to continue to fight individual planning applications, in a bid to get local council chiefs to refuse permissions.

Greenpeace’s Hannah Martin said the Government policy was ‘bizarre’ given it has just recently signed up to a ‘historic’ agreement on climate change in Paris.

“Just days after a historic agreement at the Paris climate summit to move towards a renewable energy future – the UK government’s gung-ho approach to a new fossil fuel industry is bizarre and irresponsible,” she said.

“The future economic benefits of fracking are often touted as a key argument for investment in shale gas drilling. But when companies like Cuadrilla are majority owned by firms based in offshore tax havens, it raises serious questions about where the profits would go,” she added.

“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. Now that fracking under national parks and other protected areas has been pushed through, it seems that nowhere is sacred,” she concluded.

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