The RSPB warned today that nearly 300 Sites of Special Scientific Interest – home to rare plants and animals – have been included in the new oil and gas licences.
The 159 licences, announced last month, also include nine RSPB nature reserves. Among them are Bempton Cliffs, the home of Europe’s biggest seabird colony, as well as Nagshead in the Forest of Dean, known for woodcock and greater spotted woodpecker, and the West Yorkshire wetland reserve at Fairburn Ings.
In January, the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, promised to ban fracking from SSSIs, regarded as the best examples of Britain’s natural heritage. During a debate on the Infrastructure Bill, she told MPs the government had agreed to “an outright ban on fracking in National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
But regulations published in July did not include SSSIs.
The RSPB, which has more than one million members, said today: “This promise seems to have been forgotten.”
The organisation’s Conservation Director, Martin Harper, said: “We simply don’t understand why SSSIs, some of the UK’s best and most sensitive wildlife sites and landscapes, aren’t being offered full protection from fracking, when National Parks, World Heritage Sites and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are being excluded from fracking completely.”
“The Government still has a chance, before these fracking licences are finalised, to fulfil its promise and protect SSSIs – and the RSPB is urging them to do so.”
In July, a DECC spokesman told The Telegraph: “SSSI already have strong protection under the existing planning and regulatory regime. As they are numerous and extremely widespread it would be impractical to completely rule out drilling in SSSI.
“However, the National Planning Policy Framework already makes clear that development should not normally be permitted if it is likely to have an adverse effect on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.”
But the RSPB said it did not believe that the existing legal protections for Sites of Special Scientific Interest were strong enough to protect them from damage that could be caused by fracking.
The organisation said it would be simplest for the Government to “completely rule out fracking in, under or near sites in order to prevent any possible damage to them”.
Martin Harper said: “SSSIs make up a very small percentage of the licence areas that the Government has offered; therefore ruling them out would have almost zero impact to the industry but could be a major benefit for UK wildlife.”
The RSPB has calculated that 293 SSSIs, covering a total area of 10,722 hectares, are vulnerable to fracking. They fall outside, or are only partially inside, other protected areas from which fracking will be banned. These sites are less than one per cent of the total area offered to fracking companies, the organisations says.
RSPB staff are reviewing all the new licences for their possible impact on wildlife, as part of a consultation by the Oil and Gas Authority. The consultation seeks feedback on how the OGA assessed the licence blocks under the Habitat Regulations. It runs until 29th September 2015.
Updated on 29/9/15 to clarify that 293 is the number of SSSIs that are not wholly part of other protected areas from which fracking is exempt.