Fracking has drawn opposition across the UKFracking has drawn vocal opposition from around the UK for its impact on the climate and environment. Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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By Isabella Kaminski

United Kingdom authorities must take climate change objections into account when approving local fracking licenses, the High Court of England and Wales has ruled.

The decision, handed down on Thursday, means the government will also have to redraw its national policy on shale gas extraction to take into account the latest scientific evidence on climate change.

The case was brought by the advocacy group Talk Fracking, which challenged the government’s update of its shale gas planning policy in 2018. Talk Fracking said the government had not properly consulted the public when rewriting the policy. The High Court heard the case in London in December.

The UK government has long positioned fracking as a way to transition to low-carbon energy, saying it will help wean the country off higher-carbon fuel sources such as coal and help meet national climate targets. It also sees fracking as a means of boosting domestic energy security by reducing gas imports.

The latest ruling is important because it recognizes climate change as an issue at a local level, which is likely to give heart to other anti-fracking campaigners in the UK, where fracking already has little public support.

“I’m very pleased that the court has confirmed that the government has behaved irresponsibly and recklessly with our democratic rulebook,” said Joe Corré of Talk Fracking. “It is also clear, with guidance from the court, that climate change objections to fracking must be considered at a local planning level.”

The government said its climate change conclusions were based on evidence in a 2013 report, which found greenhouse gas emissions associated with fracking were comparable to gas extracted from conventional sources and lower than those from imported liquified natural gas.

But Talk Fracking commissioned its own report, which took into account newer evidence about the short-term climate impact of methane. The group said the government had not taken this new information into account when revising its policy.

In the court’s judgment, Justice Ian Dove said this latest information was relevant to the government’s decision. “It was capable of having a direct bearing upon a key element of the evidence base for the proposed policy and its relationship to climate change effects,” he said.

Fracking has yet to take off in the UK as it has in the U.S. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have implemented outright bans or have policies discouraging it. In England—the only part of the UK directly affected by the national planning document—there is a low level of support among the public. Many local campaigns have sprung up opposing its development and several court cases have been launched.

Regulations governing the local environmental impacts of fracking have also drawn intense scrutiny.

Local authorities have previously been told they cannot consider climate change as a factor in fracking license decisions because it is a matter of national energy policy.

The decision also shows the tensions between local and national authorities on climate change. Dozens of councils in the UK have formally declared ‘climate emergencies’ in the face of what they say is intransigence by national governments.

Rowan Smith, an attorney representing Talk Fracking, said the UK now has to hold a full review of its policy support for fracking, with proper consideration of recent science. “What is clear from this judgment is that the government has to keep climate change science under review when formulating fracking policies in an open and transparent way.”

The judge said he would will allow both sides time to consider the implications of the ruling and to make further submissions.The government is likely to be required to redraw its planning policy, but it’s not yet clear what specific changes it will have to make. A government spokesperson said it noted the judgment and will now consider its next steps.