A Labour member of the House of Lords has accused the government of weakening the law protecting National Parks through its regulations on fracking.
Lord Judd, speaking during a debate yesterday, said the regulations conflicted with the act of parliament that established national parks.
The Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2015 are currently before parliament in the form of secondary legislation, known as a statutory instrument.
They define “protected areas” where fracking cannot take place as areas of land at a depth of less than 1,200m beneath a National Park, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Site. The regulations say they use the same definition of National Parks as the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the primary legislation that created them.
But Lord Judd, said:
“The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act does not state that National Parks end at a depth of 1,200 meters.”
“It seems that by default the draft statutory instrument is altering primary legislation by limiting the extent of the national park to a depth of 1,200 metres, and in so doing is potentially placing at risk the national parks’ ecosystem services.”
Lord Judd, a vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks, said the government had promised during the passage of the Infrastructure Act earlier this year to ban fracking from protected areas. But it left it to the regulations to define the meaning of these areas. He said:
“There is a risk of allowing secondary legislation to remove the precautions that are in place for this valued and environmentally significant land, when a precautionary approach is essential.”
He said the deep geological features below 1,200m were still within the National Park.
“The National Parks authorities are custodians of land valued by the nation for its clean air, earth and water, biodiversity, geodiversity and inspirational landscapes, and which provides tourism opportunities that are valued worldwide. These special qualities should not be undermined. Indeed, that would be against the primary legislation”.
“I suggest—indeed, I am fairly convinced of this—that the statutory instrument potentially conflicts with primary legislation.”
Lord Bourne, an energy minister, said the deepest pothole in the UK was 198m.
“There should not be any issue about access to 1,200m below the surface. That is not what was envisaged then or indeed feasible now, so I do not think there is an access issue relating to the areas that we are talking about in National Parks.”
Another Labour peer criticised the way the government had introduced the regulations. Lord Grantchester, the shadow energy spokesman, accused ministers of back-tracking by allowing fracking under National Parks and said it should have consulted on the regulations. He asked:
“Are the Government trying to avoid embarrassment and controversy? Are they once again trying to put forward measures that they want through secondary legislation that cannot be amended?”
Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrat), a former chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, criticised the government for using data from the industry to justify fracking and for not quantifying the environmental benefits of preventing hydraulic fracturing in protected areas.
“They are taking figures from the industry but taking no evidence from anyone else. They accept that there are extreme uncertainties attached to the key parameters, yet they base the definition of “protected areas” solely on consideration of those economic costs provided by a wholly biased source, those in the industry, and the department does not even say that there is any certainty attached to those figures.”
She said she was disappointed in removing Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) from the regulations.
“It shows an extremely cavalier approach to environmental protection that does not serve this Government well. I fully understand that they want to have a dash for gas but they have to accept that we have to do that in a way that takes people with this and, rightly, protects what is special and precious about our countryside. The process of bringing about this piece of secondary legislation does not do that.”
Lord Young of Northwood Green (Labour) described the regulations as “a sensible and measured approach”. He said the UK would be dependent on gas for 30 years, perhaps longer.
“It is important that we have a balanced and integrated approach to energy. It is unfortunate that it has taken us so long.”
Baroness Byford (Conservative) said she hadn’t been aware that SSSIs had not been included in the regulations but she welcomed them.
“We need to be looking to the future for a sustainable supply of gas—shale is but one option—and at the same time having a very balanced approach to the biodiversity of the land above the soil and obviously, as noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, to that beneath.”
Lord Bourne said shale provide “a massive potential”. “It really is time that we started taking this seriously.”
“We do not want to make it so difficult or so unattractive that all interest dies away all of a sudden. We are not that sort of nation. We have energy issues to address on security of supply, which we looked at in relation to other statutory instruments earlier today.”
“I do not accept that there is any massive safety issue. You can never be 100% certain, but we are almost there with our safety regimes, which I think we should be proud of.”
- The debate lasted an hour and involved six of the 760 peers who are currently members of the House of Lords. At the end of the debate peers agreed a motion to consider the regulations. There is currently no date for the regulations to come before the House of Commons.