The UK Government was forced to make a humiliating U-turn on its shale gas exploration plans, after it agreed to implement the Opposition’s Labour Party’s 13-point programme to close environmental loopholes in the shale gas regulations.
However, an attempt to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration, as recommended by a report from MPs, including former Conservative environment secretary Caroline Spelman, was defeated after Labour abstained.
After their ‘gung-ho’ approach to shale exploration was criticised by MP’s from both the Coalition and the opposition parties, the government was forced to adopt certain changes like banning fracking in national parks, setting stricter conditions for fracking in individual areas, and introducing new measures so that fracking could only go ahead if it was shown to be compatible with climate targets.
Other measures proposed by the Labour Party specify that will be illegal for fracking take place:
- Unless an environmental impact assessment has been carried out,
- Unless independent inspections are carried out of the integrity of wells used,
- Unless monitoring has been undertaken on the site over the previous 12 month period,
- Unless site-by-site measurement, monitoring and public disclosure of existing and future fugitive emissions is carried out,
- In land which is located within the boundary of a groundwater source protection zone,
- In deep-level land at depths of less than 1,000 metres,
- Unless planning authorities have considered the cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing activities in the local area,
- Unless a provision is made for community benefit schemes to be provided by companies engaged in the extraction of gas and oil rock,
- Unless residents in the affected area are notified on an individual basis,
- Unless substances used are subject to approval by the Environment Agency,
- Unless land is left in a condition required by the planning authority,
- Unless water companies are consulted by the planning authority.
The controversial measure that allows exploration companies to drill and lie pipes under private land stays in place.
The infrastructure bill, which contains the new rules for fracking, will now go to the House of Lords, where further changes could be made.
Tom Greatrex, Labour’s Shadow Energy minister, said the decision to accept Labour’s amendments was a huge victory for the protection of the environment.
He said: “Labour has always said that shale gas extraction cannot go ahead unless there is a system of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection, but David Cameron has repeatedly ignored people’s genuine and legitimate environmental concerns over shale gas.
“The Government has been forced to accept that tough protections and proper safeguards must be in place before fracking can go ahead.”
“While eight out of 10 homes still rely on gas for heating, shale gas may have a role to play in displacing some of the gas we currently import and improving our energy security. But it isn’t an energy silver bullet that the Tories claime it is. The potential benefit cannot come at the expense of robust environmental protections or our climate change commitments.”
“Attention must now turn to the Scottish Government, who can block shale gas in Scotland if they choose. The SNP in Holyrood have always had control over the planning and permitting regime, giving them an effective veto over any developments. Their silence on these existing powers is telling.”
In reply, SNP energy spokesman Mike Weir MP, insisted that Labour had failed to stop fracking properly by not backing their amendment for a time limited moratorium.
“Scottish Labour have been found out,” he said. “Their pathetic motion did not involve a moratorium, and did not even apply to Scotland.
“The SNP support a UK moratorium to ensure that no more licences for fracking are granted before full powers over licensing are transferred to the Scottish Parliament.”
In the UK, most anti-fracking campaigners welcomed the development although many believe the new rules don’t go far enough.
Donna Hume, from Friends of the Earth, said: “Public opinion and increasing concern from MPs has forced the government into retreat on fracking. Everywhere fracking is proposed, local communities say no.”
“But these concessions do not go far enough,” said Hume. “The only way to safeguard our climate, local communities and their environment from the fracking threat is to halt shale gas completely.”
Green party MP Caroline Lucas criticised Labour’s amendments as weak. “When it came to a freeze on fracking, Labour abstained. Instead they served up their own superficial tweaks, lacking in detail and riddled with loopholes,” she said.
“The strength of public feeling on this issue is palpable and I think it’s intensified still further in the face of the astonishing lack of transparency and lack of regard for the views of voters. People won’t be silenced on this.”
There is a danger, though, that while not appeasing the environmentalists, the new rules will go a long way to discourage exploration companies from investing in UK shale. Philip Mace, partner at Clyde & Co, told ClickGreen: “The industry will now be thinking long and hard about its plans for unconventional oil and gas development in the UK.
“The amendments to the bill mean the outlook for the sector is uncertain as we go into the general election and beyond. Investors loathe this sort of uncertainty – so the prospects for shale oil and gas in the UK looks bleak for the short and medium term.”
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