MPs backtrack on environmental regulations as fracking bill goes through Parliament

Houses of Parliament, London
Source: DollarPhotoClub

In the latest development in the UK shale saga, ministers went back on the promise to ban fracking in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), and groundwater source protection zones (SPZs).

On 26th January the government yielded to an MPs revolt and accepted Labour’s 13 point programme to close environmental loopholes in the shale gas regulations, but as fracking rules in the Infrastructure Bill cleared Parliament, MPs decided to allow exploration companies to drill horizontally under national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty if the wells start just outside them.

Amber Rudd, the energy minister, said that preventing fracking beneath some protected areas would not be “practical” and would “unduly constrain” fracking firms.

“There is a strong case that sites such as World Heritage sites and the Norfolk Broads should be protected from fracking taking place under them. In other cases, that would not be so sensible,” she said.

“For example, in the case of areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks, given their size and dispersion, it might not be practical to guarantee that fracking will not take place under them in all cases without unduly constraining the industry.”

Tom Greatrex, Labour’s shadow energy minister, responded: “The amendment that the Government accepted [previously] contained the phrase ‘within or under protected areas’.

“The word ‘under’ is crucial, because operators could drill as much as 3 km horizontally, and some of the protected areas are quite small. It is conceivable that they could be ringed by shale gas operators fracking ‘without’ but nevertheless ‘under’ protected areas.”

Other measures proposed by Labour have also been subsequently watered down, for example; an altered definition of a “protected area” effectively leaves most of groundwater source protection zones (SPZs) completely unprotected. Also, MPs backtracked on a commitment that Health and Safety Executive inspections of drilling sites would be unannounced.

Other changes reversed on Monday included residents being notified on an individual basis of shale gas operations in their area, gas leaks other than methane being recorded and a legal requirement for environmental impact assessments at sites.

Ken Cronin, the chief executive of the UK Onshore Oil and Gas trade body said that “many of the issues raised in the amendments are already complied with by the industry voluntarily,” and said that now that the Infrastructure Bill went through Parliament “the industry can get on with finding out the extent of the recoverable reserves of natural gas below our feet.”

Nick Clack, senior energy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, told The Guardian: “The government claimed to have introduced strong legal safeguards on fracking to protect the countryside and communities. Now ministers have undermined that claim and further eroded public confidence.”

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