The government has proposed a relaxation in the planning laws which apply to fracking.
Under the plans, preliminary drilling could be classed as permitted development – the same law that allows people to build a small conservatory.
Opponents of fracking say it shows the government is desperate to encourage fracking.
They call the proposed relaxation of planning law an outrageous subversion of the planning process.
Energy Minister Claire Perry said: “This package of measures delivers on our manifesto promise to support shale and it will ensure exploration happens in the most environmentally responsible way while making it easier for companies and local communities to work together.”
She said shale gas had the potential to lower energy prices, although opponents of the technology say there is no evidence this will happen in the UK.
The proposed changes were applauded by the shale gas firm Cuadrilla.
Its chief executive Francis Egan said: “We welcome the measures the government has introduced on making the planning process faster and fairer and providing additional resources to help local authorities.
“Our permission to drill and test just four shale gas exploratory wells in Lancashire was granted after a lengthy and costly three year process. These timelines must improve if the country is to benefit from its own, much needed, indigenous source of gas.”
Since test fracking triggered a small earthquake in Blackpool seven years ago, no commercial fracking has been started.
Ministers hope to make fracking easier by allowing the early stages under permitted development. A government spokesman confirmed that this would include drilling but not fracturing the rock.
Friends of the Earth condemned the plans, with spokeswoman Rose Dickinson saying: “The government’s plans pervert the planning process and could make England’s landscape a Wild West for whatever cowboy wants to start drilling and digging up our countryside.
“Permitted development was meant to help people build a fence or a conservatory, not drill for gas.”
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