MPs call for halt to fracking because of risks to climate and environment

A committee of MPs called today for a moratorium on fracking in the UK.

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said fracking was inconsistent with the UK’s legal duties to limit global climate change.It also said fracking should be halted because of uncertainties about other risks to the environment.

The committee called for an outright ban on fracking in areas that supply drinking water and in protected wildlife and landscape areas.

It also said there should be specific regulations for shale gas extraction before further fracking was contemplated.

The recommendations are the results of an inquiry by the EAC into the environmental risks of fracking. They were published this morning (Monday) to coincide with the first vote on fracking in the House of Commons.

MPs will consider measures in the Infrastructure Bill designed to make it easier for companies to drill for unconventional oil and gas and leave substances under private land without the owners’ consent. The Bill also makes it a legal duty for the government to maximise the economic recovery of the UK’s oil and gas industry.

More than 30 amendments have been submitted to this section of the Bill, including one signed by eight members of the EAC, which, if passed, would require the government to declare a moratorium on fracking.

Shale gas not a bridge fuel to a low carbon future

The EAC report said extensive production of unconventional gas through fracking was inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under the Climate Change Act to keep global temperature rise below two degrees.

The report argued that shale gas was not low carbon and government policy should aim to reduce the carbon intensity of energy, whatever its source.

It said large-scale extraction of UK shale gas was likely to be 10-15 years away. It would not drive dirtier coal out of the energy system because, by then, unabated coal would have been phased out to meet EU emissions directives. Shale gas could not, the report concluded, be regarded as a transitional or bridging fuel to a low carbon future.

“The Infrastructure Bill should be amended to explicitly bar fracking of shale gas”, the report said. It called for an amendment to the Bill, which would require the government to ensure fossil fuel emissions were limited to the carbon budgets advised by the Committee on Climate Change. The committee said the Infrastructure Bill should introduce “a moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking in order to reduce the risk of carbon budgets being breached.”

Large-scale fracking needed to be commercially viable

The report also concluded that shale gas was unlikely to be commercially-viable unless developed at a significant scale to compete with the growing renewable energy sector.

But it said:

“Large scale fracking will not be able to be accommodated within still tightening carbon budgets”. It added there was: “Little evidence to suggest that fracking could be undertaken at the scale needed to be commercially viable in the UK or that it will bring gas prices down significantly”.

The report quoted Lord Smith, chair of the industry-funded Shale Gas Task Force, who told the inquiry shale gas would make it more difficult to decarbonise our energy sector.

Another witness, Dr John Broderick, of the Tyndall Centre, said it was:

“counterproductive to be going looking for more fossil fuel reserves when we already know that we have to leave the majority of our existing fossil fuels underground”.

Other witnesses said the further development of fossil fuel energy in the UK would dilute the country’s authority in the UN climate negotiations leading up to the Paris climate change conference at the end of this year.

Environmental risks

The EAC inquiry questioned the Environment Agency, academics, and a representative of the fracking industry. It also took written evidence from community and campaign groups and individuals opposed to fracking.

The committee concluded there were uncertainties about the hazards of fracking to air and ground water quality, water supplies and geological integrity. It said waste, air emissions, noise and disruption were a threat to health and biodiversity.

The report said the seriousness with which the Environment Agency took the potential risks of fracking gave the committee some reassurance. But it added:

“We heard much to suggest that there are uncertainties which point to unacceptable gaps, inconsistencies and inadequacies in the current [regulatory] regime”

These applied to chemical use, waste, emissions, environmental liability, environmental assessment, water and planning, the report said. It called for changes to the regulatory system, including mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments for all fracking operations, a ban on venting, containment of all methane on fracking sites, independent monitoring, regular unannounced spot checks and audits and public disclosure of all monitoring data.

But the report argued these changes were not enough to create the more coherent regulatory system that must be in place before fracking went ahead.

“A halt is also needed on environmental grounds, It is essential that further independent studies into the impacts of fracking in the UK are completed to help resolve the environmental risk uncertainties.

“Until uncertainties are fully resolved, and the required regulatory and monitoring system improvements we identify are introduced, there should also be a moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking on environmental grounds.”

Outright ban

The committee called for a ban on fracking in nationally important areas, including National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and ancient woodland.

It welcomed the current ban on fracking in water source protection zones 1, the most vulnerable areas supplying drinking water. But it said: “Fracking should be prohibited in all source protection zones and all fracking activity must require a groundwater permit when wells extend under aquifers”. It said there should be a mandatory minimum vertical separation distance between shales being fracked and a groundwater aquifer.

Underground access

The committee said the majority of people opposed the measures in the Infrastructure Bill, which sought to give oil and gas companies the automatic right of access to land below 300m without needing the surface owners’ permission.  The committee said the clause was not considered necessary by the industry. “It should be removed from the Infrastructure Bill”.

“This proposed change in trespass law has serious implications for citizens’ rights which could unnecessarily undermine the democratic process for objecting to development. On this issue, the public have spoken and the Government must listen.”

Lack of social licence

The report also drew attention to a “lack of public acceptance or social licence for fracking”. It said a social licence would be difficult to achieve because the debate about fracking had become so polarised. The Government’s refusal to publish an unredacted version of a report on the impacts of fracking rural economies had not helped.

“We asked Defra for an un-redacted version of the report during our inquiry, and this should now be published as soon as possible. The Government and industry must be transparent and make publicly available all other information relating to fracking as a matter of course.”

Environmental Audit Committee webpage

Link to report

[Updated 8.00 on 26/1/15 to correct 600m to 300m]

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