Fracking can take place in sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and under national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), the government has said.
In January, the coalition government promised an outright ban on fracking in these areas, replacing earlier planning guidance that said fracking could be allowed in exceptional circumstances and if it could be demonstrated it is in the public interest.
However, the energy and climate department (Decc) today published draft legislation that only bans drilling from the surface of protected areas. It will be allowed below 1,200 metres in national parks, AONBs, the Suffolk and Norfolk broads, world heritage sites and areas classified as groundwater protection zone one. Drinking water is not normally found below 400 metres, Decc said.
Further detail on how the surface drilling ban will be implemented so as not to prevent conventional oil and gas operations will be published soon, a spokeperson for Decc confirmed.
The move has outraged environmental campaigners. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas claimed the move showed the government could not be trusted on fracking, while Greenpeace said the new rules would allow fracking companies to drill down and sideways under national parks, and warned that such areas could become surrounded by drilling rigs.
Analysis by Greenpeace in February found that around 45% of licensing blocks for onshore oil and gas had at least half of their area within a national park, SSSI, AONB, groundwater protection zone, or a combination of the four.
Matt Williams, policy officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said he was worried at the prospect of fracking under protected areas. "The pollution, noise and light disturbance from fracking wells doesn't respect boundaries potentially putting wildlife at risk," he said.
Onshore oil and gas trade body UKOOG pointed out that the industry has for years been operating in the South Downs national park and the North York Moors national park, as well as AONBs and nature reserves.
In a statement, it said: "The industry understands the need for the secretary of state to create special protection for site surface visual amenity reasons. However, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing happen around three kilometres below the surface where there is no visual amenity issue and the protection of the environment is already covered by stringent and multiple laws and regulation administered by the environmental regulator and the Health and Safety Executive."
The allegation that national parks will be "ringed" with rigs deliberately ignores legislation and practice, it added.
Decc is due to announce the results of the latest licensing round for onshore oil and gas this summer. This will reveal potential locations for both conventional and unconventional drilling. No date has yet been set, according to the department's spokesperson.