Shale gas regulation tightened following parliamentary debate

27th January 2015

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Muhammad Ali

Fracking will be completely banned in protected areas, including national parks, the government has confirmed.

A series of amendments to provisions on shale gas exploration and extraction in the Infrastructure Bill were debated in the House of Commons yesterday.

Shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex tabled a new clause with several new measures, including that fracking would not take place “within or under protected areas”.

Government guidance published in July 2014 states that planning authorities should refuse planning applications for major developments in national parks, the Norfolk broads, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites, but includes the caveat “unless it can be demonstrated both that exceptional circumstances exist and that it is in the public interest”.

Initially, energy and climate minister Amber Rudd said this level of protection was sufficient and that a blanket ban would be disproportionate, before completing a u-turn and agreeing to a “an outright ban” on fracking in such areas, and removing from the bill the caveat on exceptional circumstances.

But MPs demanded clarification on the issue when speaker of the house said no amendment had been tabled by the government that clarified the wording on shale gas in national parks.

A spokesman for the energy and climate department (Decc) this morning confirmed that it is “committed to formalising safeguards, including a new ban on fracking in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest”, adding that the wording around “exceptional circumstances” had been removed.

The government is also adding a requirement for shale gas operators to conduct baseline monitoring of a site for 12 months before fracking commences. Existing regulations state that only three months monitoring is required. Fracking will also not be allowed in any groundwater protection zones. Currently, it is only banned from groundwater protection zone one, meaning it could have taken place zones two or three.

Other measures in the Labour clause exist already in regulations or in industry commitments on best practice. For example, a requirement for all fracking operations to undergo environmental impact assessments and for operators to disclose all chemicals they plan to use.

An amendment to impose a moratorium on fracking, introduced by a cross-party group of MPs on the environmental audit committee, was defeated, with only 52 votes in favour.

Ken Cronin, chief executive of industry body UKOOG, said: "It is good news that MPs have rejected the misguided attempts to introduce a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. Most of the amendments agreed are in line with best practice in the industry or codify the directions of regulators, which the industry would naturally comply with.”

Many MPs, including environmental audit committee chair Joan Walley, complained that a large number of amendments on a contentious subject were being debated in a very short space of time. The bill will now move to the final stage at the House of Lords, where the amendments will be considered again.

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