The government’s consultation about how new oil and gas licences may affect the UK’s most important sites for wildlife appears to breach good practice guidelines – and has been criticised by a leading nature conservation organisation.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which has four reserves in areas covered by the new licence blocks, said the time allowed for comments was not long enough.
The consultation lasts six weeks, ending on 29th September 2015. But good practice recommends consultations on new, complex or controversial issues should allow 12 weeks for comments.
The online form asks only two substantive questions. But one of them invites people to comment on any of the 159 individual licence blocks under consideration. The background documents include:
- An 81-page technical report
- An appendix of 302 pages
- 159 pages of maps
- Details of hundreds of species and protected areas
The consultation is required under the European Habitats Regulations. The Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), which administers exploration licences for the government, has assessed each of the 159 blocks published last month. The assessments aim to identify what impact oil or gas operations would have on species and habitats in wildlife sites protected under European law.
These sites include:
- RAMSAR sites – Internationally important wetland sites
- Special Protection Areas (SPA)– sites protected under the Wild Birds Directive
- Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) – sites protected under the Habitats Directive
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, along with several other conservation and green organisations, plans to contribute to the consultation. But the six-week timescale has put them under pressure to complete responses by the deadline.
Peter Morris, WWT’s campaigns manager, said:
“We are concerned if plans are rushed through without enough concern for impacts on local people and wildlife.
“We’ll use our specialist scientific knowledge to assess the government’s evidence and methods and publish our response to their consultation to help everyone locally see the legal factors that need to be weighed up.”
But he said the Habitats Regulations Assessment was very complex.
“People living near our sites are relying on us to provide guidance on how they can contribute to the consultation. But the short timescale means we are unlikely to be able complete our response in time for it to be very useful to them.”
WWTs flagship site of Slimbridge is in one of the new licence blocks, as is Martin Mere in Lancashire, Arundel in West Sussex and Steart Marshes in Somerset.
The RSPB revealed last week that nine of its reserves were in licence blocks. It told DrillOrDrop that RSPB staff across England were reviewing the OGA’s assessment of the licence blocks and it would publish its response to the consultation. The RSPB is also campaigning for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) to be included in the list of protected areas from which fracking is banned under the Infrastructure Act.
The Wildlife Trusts told us its head office did not have sufficient capacity to make a national response. But a spokesperson said individual wildlife trusts may contribute. The Wildlife Trusts is supporting the RSPB’s campaign on banning fracking from SSSIs.
Consultation good practice
The consultation timeframe, which included almost half of August and a bank holiday, appears to breach consultation good practice and perhaps even the government’s principles.
The Compact, an agreement between the Coalition Government and the voluntary sector in 2010, recommended consultations should last 12 weeks. This duration, particularly for new, contentious or complex change, is also recommended by the EU and other organisations, including, for example, the General Medical Council.
In 2013 the Coalition published its Consultation Principles and scrapped the 12-week duration, recommending instead that timescales should be decided on a case-by-case basis. But it added:
“For a new and contentious policy, 12 weeks or more may still be appropriate. When deciding on the timescale for a given consultation the capacity of the groups being consulted to respond should be taken into consideration.”
It also says the duration should take into account any holiday period that coincides with the consultation and that the principles of The Compact should continue to be respected.
We will ask the OGA to comment and let you know its answer.
Guidance on how to respond
Friends of the Earth urges people to check whether the OGA has identified all the protected areas in the licence blocks and that it has considered all the evidence of impact on wildlife. The organisation also urges respondents to think about the cumulative effects of existing oil and gas operations on wildlife when added to potential new developments.
Frack Free Ryedale (FFR) commented that the consultation was difficult for people without specialist ecological knowledge or experience to respond. It added:
“There is no easily accessible link to allow the average person to check if all SPAs and SACs are included in the Government’s consultation. This feels an inappropriate way to conduct a public consultation and designed specifically to discourage the average person to respond.”
Other criticisms by FFR include
- The consultation does not consider impacts on National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, SSSIs or local nature reserves
- It assumes that fracking will have a similar impact to conventional oil and gas
- The buffer zones around the protected areas appear arbitrary, inadequate and untested
- The assessment appears to be a desktop study and has not involved fieldwork.
Responses to the consultation must be submitted to the OGA by 11.45pm on Tuesday 29th September 2015.