Row in House of Commons over EIA for shale gas

12th February 2015

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Ettete Ndaessien

Labour accused the government of backtracking on a commitment for mandatory environmental impact assessments (EIA) for shale gas operations during a debate on the Infrastructure Bill in the House of Commons yesterday.

The bill was passed back to the commons following disagreements in House of Lords over a new clause added by the Labour party. One of the provisions in the clause stated: “no hydraulic fracturing activity could take place unless an environmental impact assessment has been carried out.”

However, the government claimed that the wording of the clause needed to be changed in order to make it legally viable. It replaced Labour’s clause with one stating that the secretary of state will not give permission for any shale gas operations unless the relevant local planning authority states that “environmental information was taken into account” in deciding the planning application.

Energy and climate change minister Amber Rudd said that this was no different in practice to the aim of the Labour amendment. “The term ‘environmental information’ is used in the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011. It captures the information that must be taken into account by the relevant planning authority before planning permission is granted, including, but not limited to, an environmental statement. This process is commonly referred to an as environmental impact assessment,” she argued.

But shadow environment minister Tom Greatrex said the government’s clause “stops short of a full commitment to an environmental impact assessment.”

He also claimed the government’s position was inconsistent on several areas of shale gas policy, including community consultation, fugitive emissions, environmental permits and site inspections by the Health and Safety Executive.

“With this kind of confusion, it is not difficult to see why people accuse the government of not taking the regulations for shale gas seriously, and why there is a lack of confidence in what the government are saying this evening and what they have been saying over the past couple of weeks,” he said.

The government also refused to back down on producing its own definition of the designated land and groundwater protection zones that would be excluded from shale gas operations. A definition will be provided for secondary legislation by July, Rudd said. Labour had proposed a complete ban within all groundwater protection zones and within or under protected areas.

She added: “We must not rush this now, because we would risk putting in place restrictions in areas in a way that does not achieve the intended aim of the condition, or that goes beyond it and needlessly damages the potential development of the shale industry.”

The debate on the bill was limited to one hour, which prompted several complaints from MPs. Conservative MP Andrew Percy declared himself in favour of shale gas, but said: “What concerns me about tonight’s debate is the restricted time, our inability to vote on all the amendments, and what has happened between the lords and the commons with regard to what I thought we agreed in the commons a week or so ago.

“It leads many people to conclude that the government are in league with the extraction companies or that there is something to hide. I do not believe that is the case at all, but given our concerns, I think there is a very strong argument indeed for pausing and thinking again on this issue.”

Two hundred and fifty seven MPs voted in favour of the bill, with 203 against. Yesterday’s debate was the final stage in the passage of the bill, which has now been given Royal Assent.

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