The government has weakened proposals designed to ban fracking from special landscape and wildlife areas and drinking water catchments, according to campaigners. Other controls on fracking agreed by MPs have also been watered down.
New amendments to the Infrastructure Bill published today and yesterday leave it to the government to make key decisions on where and how fracking can take place.
Last week (26/1/15), the government accepted Labour’s amendment to the Infrastructure Bill which set 13 conditions on fracking. These included a ban on fracking in Groundwater Protection Zones and a requirement for Environmental Impact Assessments for all fracking operations.
During the debate on the Bill’s Report Stage, Labour’s Tom Greatrex told MPs the 13 conditions could not be “cherry-picked”, it was “all or nothing”. He said:
“All the conditions need to be in place before we can be absolutely confident that any shale extraction can happen. It should be stopped until all those conditions are met.”
Following the government’s adoption of Labour’s amendments, most Labour MPs abstained in a vote on a moratorium on fracking.
Also during the debate, the energy minister, Amber Rudd, told MPs that the government had agreed to “an outright ban on fracking in National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. The Guardian estimated this would exclude fracking from 40% of England’s shale areas.
But the latest amendments proposed by the transport minister, Baroness Kramer, use less specific language and rely on the government to define key areas where fracking is excluded.
They leave it to the Secretary of State to specify “the descriptions of areas which are ‘protected groundwater source areas’”.
Nor do they indicate which protected landscape and wildlife areas would be exempt from fracking. Instead the proposal is:
“The Secretary of State must, by regulations made by statutory instrument, specify the descriptions of areas which are ‘other protected areas’”.
The amendment goes on to say:
“The Secretary of State must lay a draft of the first such regulations before each House of Parliament on or before 31 July 2015”
Labour said its ban on fracking applied to all three levels of Groundwater Protection Zones – a technical term which applies to areas defined by The Environment Agency. The EA categorises zones from 1-3, where 1 is the most vulnerable and 3 the furthest extent of a groundwater catchment area.
Greenpeace said yesterday that by avoiding using the technical term, the Secretary of State would have “greater discretion about what falls within their definition of an area”. Government sources have indicated that their idea of ground protection areas would apply to the narrowest definition, Greenpeace said.
Chris Redstone, of Frack Free Ryedale, said:
“Instead of specifying the designations of the areas that fall under protection, the Government is leaving that to be specified in regulations in a Statutory Instrument to be issued by the Secretary of State before July 2015 – well after the general election. This will give the Secretary of State extraordinary powers to pick and choose which are protected and which are not.”
Friends of the Earth’s energy campaigner, Donna Hume, said: “The Government has u-turned on its commitment to enforce regulatory conditions that would have introduced common sense measures to protect drinking water from controversial fracking.
“The Government seems determined to make fracking happen whatever the cost and people will be staggered that risky fracking will be allowed in areas that provide one third of our drinking water.
“The Government must follow the lead of Wales, Scotland, France, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and New York State by putting a stop to fracking and instead focus on renewables and cutting energy waste.”
The government’s new amendments also give the Secretary of State the power to make changes to conditions on fracking which he or she “considers appropriate”.
The wording of some of the conditions has also changed.
- Labour required environment impact assessments for all fracking operations. The government’s amendment read: “the environmental impact of the development which includes the relevant well has been taken into account by the local planning authority”
- Labour required public disclosure of existing and future fugitive emissions. The government amendment reads: “Appropriate arrangements have been made for the monitoring of emissions of methane into the air”.
- Labour required residents in proposed fracking areas to be notified on an individual basis. The government’s amendment requires only that “the public was given notice of the application for the relevant planning permission”.
- Labour required that land must be “left in a condition required by the planning authority. The government now requires local planning authorities to consider “whether to impose a restoration condition”
- Labour required independent inspections of the integrity of wells. The government amendment reads: “appropriate arrangements have been made for the independent inspection of the integrity of the relevant well.”
- Labour required “community benefit schemes to be provided by companies engaged in the extraction of gas and oil rock. The government amendment omits any reference to companies and reads: “that a scheme is in place to provide financial or other benefit for the local area”
The Infrastructure Bill is next debated on Monday 9th February in the House of Lords.