As MP prepare to leave parliament for the summer, the government has announced it is to ban fracking from the surface of National Parks and some other protected areas. But under new rules operators will be allowed to frack underneath these areas from outside their boundaries.
Several environmental organisations have reacted angrily, accusing the government of bypassing democracy and watering down the protection of beautiful landscapes. Campaigners in North Yorkshire, where Third Energy is applying to frack an existing well, described the decision as a huge blow to local villages.
A press statement issued this morning by the Department of Energy and Climate Change said those areas where fracking would be banned would be set out in draft regulations (see Update at the end of this post). But at the time of writing the regulations have not been published and a DECC press officer said they were not expected until tomorrow.
The regulations will provide definitions for “protected areas” referred to in the Infrastructure Act, passed earlier this year. The Act required that they must be laid before parliament by the end of this month but the summer recess begins on 21st July. The definitions will not cover conventional oil and gas exploration or development.
The press statement said the regulations would allow fracking to take place at depths of at least 1,200m under National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Broads and World Heritage Sites. But fracking wells could not be drilled from the surface of these areas. There were no details of how drinking water source areas or Sites of Special Scientific Interest would be protected, if at all.
The statement included a quote from the Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, who said: “This industry will be developed safely with world class environmental protections, creating jobs and delivering better energy security while safeguarding of some of our most precious landscapes.”
Government reneged on promises
Matt Williams, of the RSPB accused the government of reneging on its promise to include Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the list of “protected areas”.
“These extremely important wildlife sites will no longer benefit from an outright fracking ban, with Government claiming that existing protections are sufficient.
“Government did today reiterate its commitment to ruling out wells and surface infrastructure within protected areas, but gave no detail on how or when this might happen. And if they can renege on protecting SSSIs, this casts doubt on whether they’ll stick to that promise.”
“Blatant attempt to bypass democracy”
Daisy Sands, energy and climate change campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “The government seems intent on watering down their pledge that National Parks, the most beautiful and beloved areas of the English countryside, and ground water would be protected from fracking firms, their drilling rigs and pollution”.
“With a few days before recess, this looks like nothing but a blatant attempt to bypass democracy to sneak this deeply unpopular policy in through the back door while no-one is looking. Ministers have given concerned citizens up and down the country no opportunity to voice their opposition to the plans that could ruin the countryside, contaminate the water supply and have a devastating impact on the climate.”
“Huge blow to North Yorkshire”
Chris Redstone of Frack Free Ryedale described the Government’s intention to allow drilling under National Parks and AONBs as “a huge blow for the villages and countryside of North Yorkshire”.
“There is now the very real prospect that the North York Moors National Park and the Howardian Hills AONB will be ringed by dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of fracking wells, which will be allowed to drill horizontally under them.”
“The HGV traffic, noise, light and air pollution created by these wells will of course have a significant impact on local villages, wildlife and farms in these areas, and the tourist industry that relies on the beauty, peace and quiet of these so-called ‘protected areas’.”
“It is also significant that Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and some Groundwater Protection Zones appear to be excluded from protection, again breaking a promise made in January when the Infrastructure Bill was debated.”
Friends of the Earth’s energy campaigner Rose Dickinson said: “It is outrageous that the Government has given the green light to fracking under National Parks and appears to be doing nothing to stop fracking in drinking water protection areas. This comes just after the Government’s own report found that even indirect exposure to contaminated drinking water can pose serious risks to health.”
“With fracking halted in Scotland and Wales due to the high risks, banned in New York State due to the ‘significant’ threat to health, abandoned in much of the South East of England and now rejected in Lancashire, it’s clear that there is overwhelming opposition wherever fracking is proposed.
“The sooner Government gets serious about renewables and energy efficiency, the safer we will be – and the quicker we can get on with addressing the urgent risk of climate change.”
“Threat to ancient woodland”
Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of the Woodland Trust CEO, said the Government had ignored the need to protect ancient woodland by not including that in the banned areas.
She said: “Our database is swollen with information relating to 600 ancient woods currently threatened by planning applications, so it’s clear existing planning legislation is just not sufficient to protect this rare and irreplaceable habitat.”
“Drilling and exploratory test wells for fracking, along with the associated infrastructure that may be needed to access and transport shale gas and oil would all cause irreparable damage to ancient woodland if allowed to take place there. This must be addressed if the Government is to ensure protection for ancient woodland in line with its own previously stated intentions.”
The draft regulations were published on 17th July 2015. They do not include Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
A “protected groundwater source area” is definied as any land at a depth of less than 1,200 metres beneath a relevant surface area. A “relevant surface area” is defined as
“Any land at the surface that is within 50 metres of a point at the surface at which water is abstracted from underground strata and is used to supply water for domestic or food production purposes, or within or above a zone defined by a 50-day travel time for groundwater to reach a ground water abstraction point that is used to supply water for domestic or food production purposes.”
Updates at 19.15 on 16/7/15 to include reaction from Frack Free Ryedale; 17/7/15 to include RSPB reaction and 20/7/2015 to include the text of the draft regulations.