LONDON, May 17 (UPI) -- Britain said this week it has issued more than 300 licenses for onshore oil and natural gas exploration since a ban on shale gas hydraulic fracturing was lifted.
British Energy Minister Michael Fallon, speaking in the House of Commons Wednesday before a newly formed parliamentary group on unconventional oil and gas, said the government has been busily promoting shale development since a moratorium on "fracking" was removed in December.
"There are already over 300 licenses for onshore exploration and development, conventional and unconventional, a fifth of which are substantial," Fallon said.
Declaring, "there is nothing now stopping licensees from bringing on new drilling plans," Fallon said the government expected to continue its push to develop a shale gas boom through the launching of a new round of licensing next year.
He announced that the project management firm AMEC will carry out a strategic environment assessment for what will be Britain's 14th onshore licensing round.
At the same time, he promised the hoped-for shale boom will only be accomplished in conjunction with "robust regulation" and a plan to cut in local communities on its benefits in an effort to counter grassroots opposition over the feared environmental consequences of widespread fracking.
"Shale gas has great potential and we have the right regulation in place so the U.K. benefits as quickly as possible in terms of energy security, investment and jobs," Fallon said.
"But development must be done in partnership with communities. We are working hard with industry on a package of community benefits and to ensure that their concerns are properly met."
What exactly those "sweeteners" will be remains unclear.
James Platt, a spokesman for Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change, told the Platts business news service last month the details are still being worked out, with "nothing concrete" decided.
The Financial Times quoted unnamed government sources in an April 28 article saying they could include cheaper household energy bills for residents in the affected areas as well as funding for community projects such as new sports clubs or community centers.
Parliament's cross-party Energy and Climate Change Committee last month issued a report on shale gas in which it warned a "skeptical public" will need to be won over before the shale gas can be fully exploited.
"Communities affected by shale gas developments should receive and share in some of the benefits," the report concluded. "The government must ensure that the public have confidence in the new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, demonstrating clearly that any potential conflicts of interest are avoided."
The committee recommended that the government explore ways of sharing "substantial material benefits with local communities," such providing lower business rates for energy as is being done now for communities hosting renewable energy projects.
This, it said, would "encourage them to take a positive view of the prospect of commercial shale gas operations beginning in their locality."
Fallon's comments came as shale gas developer Cuadrilla announced the first exploration well in the "home counties" of southeastern England would be drilled this summer.
The company, which drew widespread protests when its fracking activities in northern county of Lancashire was determined to have caused a small earthquake, said it would drill at Balcombe in Sussex.