The government has confirmed it will not allow fracking to be carried out from wells drilled at the surface of English protected areas, including National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and special wildlife sites.
The restriction does not apply to fracking under protected areas from outside their boundaries. Nor does it cover developments for coal bed methane, underground coal gasification or conventional drilling.
The government has rejected calls for new legislation and greater protection for people and the environment. But it does appear to have widened the official definition of hydraulic fracturing, at least for the time being.
The details came yesterday in a response from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to a public consultation last year.
As expected, DECC said a condition preventing hydraulic fracturing from new or existing wells in specified protected areas would be included in licences issued under last year’s 14th round.
For earlier licences, DECC said there would be a policy statement that the Secretary of State was “not minded” to approve hydraulic fracturing proposals in protected areas.
Which protected areas?
DECC said both the licence condition and the statement would apply to:
- Sites of Special Scientific Interest
- Internationally-protected Ramsar wildlife sites
- European designated Natura 2000 wildlife sites
- National Parks
- The Broads
- Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
- World Heritage Sites
- Groundwater Source Protection Zone (SPZ) 1
DECC said 84% of the 125 respondents to the consultation said its proposals were a step in the right direction but more was needed to protect the UK from adverse impacts of fracking. DECC responded:
“The Government continues to believe that the proposals provide an appropriate level of additional protections to reassure the public that the shale industry is being taken forward in a measured and reasonable manner.
“As they strike the right balance between protecting our most sensitive areas while at the same time enabling the nascent shale industry to develop, the Government does not intend to significantly modify them.”
DECC said there was no international evidence that properly regulated hydraulic fracturing should cause contamination of water supplies or other environmental damage. It said UK shale was compatible with goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions, strong controls were in place to mitigate seismic risks and the planning system had enough protections to ensure that development took place at appropriate locations.
Only 6% of respondents thought the restrictions were unnecessary. They argued the UK had an “extremely robust regulatory framework”, and there was a need to avoid deterring future changes to drilling and recovery technology.
No to buffer zones
DECC has rejected the recommendations of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and environmental groups for buffer zones to prevent fracking from the surface around the edge of protected areas. They were unnecessary because existing legislation and planning policy provided enough protection, DECC said.
No extension of groundwater protection
Environmental groups, individuals, campaigners and stakeholder organisations urged the government to widen the ban on fracking from the surface to include groundwater SPZs 2 and 3. The government said these zones were already adequately protected by regulators on “a case by case basis”.
What is hydraulic fracturing? It just got more complicated
Some respondents criticised the government for using the definition of ‘associated hydraulic fracturing’ in the 2015 Infrastructure Act. This defines fracking as operations that use more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid at any single stage or 10,000 cubic metres in total.
The Oil and Gas Authority had previously told DrillOrDrop that fracking plans would not count as ‘associated hydraulic fracturing’ if only one stage used more than 1,000 cubic metres and the total volume used was under 10,000 cubic metres.
DECC’s response appears to have complicated an already-complex regulation. It said the restrictions on fracking in protected areas would “principally affect” surface development carrying out ‘associated hydraulic fracturing’.
But it said they would also apply to “hydraulic fracturing that is not ‘associated hydraulic fracturing’” – where the total volume was under 10,000 cubic metres.
The response added:
“The Secretary of State intends to require that such consent be obtained for any operations which use more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid at any single stage, or expected stage, of the hydraulic fracturing, unless an operator can persuasively demonstrate why requiring such consent would not be appropriate in their case.
“The use of such amounts in one or more stages could well lead in some cases to similar impacts as operations which use 10,000 cubic metres of fluid in total.
“Therefore similar assurances over all the circumstances relating to the consent are likely to be as necessary for a single fracturing stage of this scale as it is with the aggregate effect of multiple stages.
“This cautious approach makes particular sense while the new industry gets underway during the early stages of exploration, and will be reviewed once hydraulic fracturing operations are more common to determine whether it is still appropriate at that point.”
No restrictions on other hydrocarbons
DECC said the surface restrictions would not apply to coal bed methane (CBM) or underground coal gasification (UCG). It said:
“As CBM activity is well established having taken place for more than 10 years with minimal public concern, the Government does not believe there is a case for the surface restrictions to apply to CBM. UCG is an entirely different process from shale gas. Gas is derived from coal seams, not shale formations, and the means of obtaining this gas is a fundamentally different technique from hydraulic fracturing.”
It also said it would not extend the restrictions for conventional drilling.
“Drilling for conventional hydrocarbon resources has been conducted safely for decades, including, for example, in National Parks and AONBs. The conventional onshore oil and gas industry is well-established and existing evidence shows that it can comply with the strict requirements that are already in place for protected areas.”
A third of the industry respondents to the consultation argued the restrictions would have some or considerable impact on new oil and gas licences. The impacts mentioned included:
- Restrictions on areas available to developers
- Investment in preliminary investigations
- Lack of future investment
- Legal and administrative costs
- Combined impact with the Infrastructure Act
“Recognising the high level of public concern around hydraulic fracturing, in particular in protected areas of significance due to their environmental, landscape or heritage characteristics, the Government further believes that the measure is the right step to assure the public that the shale industry is being taken forward in a measured and reasonable manner, notwithstanding the impact to industry.”