Almost 40 per cent of UK land available for shale drilling will have to be excluded because of environmental protections accepted by the Government last week – the national daily The Guardian has found.
This was further confirmed by an analysis by Greenpeace which found that 45 per cent of the 931 blocks being licensed for fracking in England were at least 50 per cent covered by protected areas – a fact that could adversely affect UK shale exploration in the short and medium term.
Last Tuesday, in a spectacular U-turn, the Government was forced to curb its enthusiasm for fracking and adopt the Opposition Labour Party’s 13-point programme to close environmental loopholes in shale gas regulations. The Coalition Government was forced to moderate its bullish pro-fracking stand to avoid a rebellion by Conservative and LibDem backbench MPs, many of whom are facing opposition to fracking from constituents.
Among the newly introduced protections was a clause that ruled out fracking in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and groundwater source protection zones (SPZs). The rules cannot be applied retrospectively but can influence licensed areas which have yet to get the required planning and environmental permissions. These would include: Cuadrilla’s Balcombe site (AONB) and Celtique’s Fernhurst site (national park), as well as sites in an SSSI in Cheshire and a groundwater SPZ near Hull.
In response to The Guardian’s assessment of the extent of land closed to fracking, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said: “It is too early to say what areas may be affected under this extension of protections. The government will return to the Lords with a package of measures to give effect to these amendments.”
It is not yet clear whether all three levels of groundwater special protection zones would remain protected, as the accepted amendment states. Some suspect that the Government might try to overturn this measure when the rules are finalised in the Lords.
However, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Donna Hume said: “It would be cynical of ministers to accept one day that no fracking can take place within any groundwater protection area, and then try to water it down the next day. Any attempt to play politics with rules to protect people’s drinking water would be met with contempt by the public.”
Shale gas seems to be in retreat in the UK. With public opinion increasingly against it, it is likely to become an even more pronounced issue as the May General Elections approach.
So far, fracking has received varying degrees of support form all major parties apart from The Greens. The Conservative Party has been the most aggressive in their support for fracking, but their Coalition partners the Liberals, the Opposition Labour party, and the ‘protest’ anti-EU UK Independence Party all support shale exploration even if they call for a more stringent regulatory regime.
In a separate development today, the Welsh government has indicated that it wants to follow Scotland’s lead and try to block fracking anywhere in Wales until its safety is proven. Last Thursday, the Scottish Government imposed a moratorium on fracking, which means that no shale gas licences will be granted until the moratorium is lifted. The Scots were able to do this because – following the independence vote in September – Scotland was excluded from the Infrastructure Bill and can decide on shale independently from the rest of the UK.
However, when it comes to Wales, there are no definitive plans to devolve control of fracking to the country’s National Assembly.
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