This country has just speeded up fracking

Nigel Roddis | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Ministers in the U.K. will have the power to overrule local council decisions over whether to allow fracking from Thursday in a move that could cut the time between identifying potential fracking sites and getting the drilling going.

If the U.K.'s central government thinks that councils are unreasonably knocking back applications or delaying rulings, it will be able to override them, according to an announcement Thursday. Local councils currently have 16 weeks to decide on these applications, which often involve complicated issues on environmental and traffic impact.

Amber Rudd, energy secretary and Greg Clark, communities secretary, said in a joint statement: "Ministers want to ensure shale applications can't be frustrated by slow and confused decision-making."

However, Daisy Sands, of Greenpeace, warned in a statement: "Local residents could end up with virtually no say over whether their homes, communities and national parks are fracked or not."

The controversial procedure of hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking" –involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into a well to extract oil or gas. The rocks are then fractured, and gas can escape to the surface through the cracks. The potential impact on landscapes and water supplies is particularly concerning to environmentalists.

The government announcement comes after a local council in Lancashire in June unexpectedly turned down an application by Cuadrilla, the gas exploration company, to use fracking to try and set up wells near Blackpool. The application process took more than a year, and will take longer as Cuadrilla is appealing the decision.

Fracking used to extract shale gas has been banned or halted in much of Western Europe. The U.S., on the other hand, has moved closer to energy independence by using the procedure, which has raised concerns about its long-term environmental impact.

In the case of the U.K., it has moved from being a net exporter of oil and gas to a net importer in recent years, as supplies of North Sea oil and gas have dwindled.

Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, the company that is fighting the Lancashire ruling, said in a statement that Thursday's announcement " reinforces the message that there is a national need to get on and explore shale gas."

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle