A committee of MPs had expected to debate a ban on fracking from the surface of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But the Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, told the committee the regulations dealt only with what happened below ground.
She said the government was considering how to legislate separately on what happened on the surface. And she added:
“There has to be a balance between protection and stifling the nascent shale industry”.
She said shale gas could create an energy bridge to a low carbon future, as well as creating jobs.
But the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, said: “The government has performed a spectacular U-turn”. She said it would damage public trust.
“Building a new fossil fuel industry is the very last thing the UK should be doing.”
Labour’s Alan Whitehead said it “defied belief” that the government was trying to separate above and underground activities. The government had accepted there should be no fracking in protected areas, he said.
The regulations were designed to provide legal definitions of protected area to support clauses in the Infrastructure Act.
During the passage of the act, the government accepted Labour amendments to prevent a vote on a moratorium on fracking. And it announced it would ban fracking from National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), World Heritage Sites and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
When the regulations were published, they did not include SSSIs in the ban on fracking and they permitted drilling under National Parks and AONBs at a depth of more than 1,200m.
Dr Whitehead said the application of the regulations to below-ground activities only was a “very serious diversion” of the intensions of the Infrastructure Act.
“This was not what was set out at the passing of the act”.
He said the regulations, which were in the form of a Statutory Instrument, had either been badly drafted by accident or had been deliberately written to “drive a coach and horses” through the law.
The SNP’s Tommy Sheppard, who was elected in May, said he had watched the debates on the Infrastructure Bill, during which, he said, the government had headed off calls for a moratorium by saying areas would be protected from fracking. Changing this commitment later built distrust, he said.
“It is not good enough to defend the regulations by saying a balance had to be struck between protection and the needs of the industry”.
Callum McCaig, SNP, said “people were deluded” if they thought what happened at 1,200m had no impact on the surface.
But the Conservative, Nick Herbert, whose constituency includes part of the South Downs National Park around Arundel, said Labour MPs had not shown there would be damage caused by drilling at depths greater than 1,200m.
And Kevin Foster, Conservative, defended the minister on excluding SSSIs from the ban. He said only 15% were affected because the rest were either in National Parks or AONBs. “There are layer upon layer of protection” for SSSIs, he said.
Another Conservative, Michael Fabricant, threatened to vote against the government. “I will want assurance that there are regulations laid that will control where the drillheads are placed”, he said.
In the end, all the Conservative members of the committee voted for the regulations and the government won by 10 to 8.
The regulations now go to the House of Commons. There will be no debate but if enough MPs shout “NO” there will be a vote. The regulations do not apply to the conventional oil and gas industry.