Stronger environmental rules for fracking diluted by lords

10th February 2015

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Stephen Ninham

Provisions to ban fracking in groundwater protection zones and designated land have been watered down by the House of Lords after a debate on the Infrastructure Bill.

The amendments were part of a clause accepted by the House of Commons at the end of January. They were introduced by the Labour party, which said it would not support hydraulic fracturing or fracking to extract unconventional gas and oil without the extra rules.

Speaking in the House of Lords yesterday, energy and climate change minister Baroness Verma said the amendments could not be included in the bill as drafted. “Amendment 21 is not viable as law and simply would not work in practice,” she claimed.

Verma said the government wanted to ensure that “the spirit” of the amendments was maintained, however. “Unlocking the shale industry is too big an opportunity to pass up. We all agree that it must be done safely and sustainably, but we cannot throw away the opportunity to create thousands of jobs and economic growth for communities across Britain,” she said.

Following the debate in the Commons, Decc published a press release saying that there would be an “outright ban” on fracking in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest. However, in the Lords, Verma said that a precise definition of which protected areas were included in the ban would be spelled out in secondary legislation.

The Labour clause also stated that fracking would be prohibited in groundwater protection zones one, two and three, as defined by the Environment Agency. But Verma said the government would use secondary legislation to define the groundwater source areas that would be protected from fracking operations. Definitions would be agreed by July, Verma pledged.

Analysis by Greenpeace found that very few onshore oil and gas licensing blocks would not be affected by the Labour clause.

Of the 931 blocks in England, 416 (almost 45%) would be significantly affected by the proposed regulations, meaning that at least half of their area is covered by a national park, SSSI, AONB, groundwater protection zone, or a combination of the four, the NGO found. Sixty-eight blocks overlap completely with sensitive areas, it said.

Verma also said a requirement for operators to individually notify every resident near a proposed shale gas site would be impractical to enforce and would leave every planning application open to legal challenge.

Lord Tunnicliffe, a Labour peer, criticised the government’s changes to the Labour clause and said the party’s MPs will oppose them when the bill returns to the Commons.

The Lords accepted an amendment requiring the Committee on Climate Change to report on the impact of shale gas operations on the UK’s climate change budgets to the secretary of state at least every five years.

The government also revealed that it is considering making the drilling of boreholes for monitoring water quality a permitted development. Currently, companies cannot drill boreholes for activities subject to environmental impact assessment until full planning permission has been granted, which would mean a minimum delay of 12 months before any hydraulic fracturing would be allowed.

Meanwhile, the Environment Agency has granted shale gas operator Cuadrilla an environmental permit for exploration work at Roseacre Wood, Lancashire. The company’s planning application for the site was recommended for refusal by planners at Lancashire County Council on the grounds of noise and traffic.

Councillors delayed a decision on whether or not to grant permission after Cuadrilla submitted extra information on these issues. The council confirmed last week that a decision will not take place until after 30 April, to allow time for a new public consultation.

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