Very little green in the Queen's speech

5th June 2014

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Marc Williams

New government proposals outlined in the Queen's speech include the introduction of a 5p charge on reusable plastic bags, a further watering down of the commitment to build zero-carbon homes, and changes to the existing law on trespass to support fracking operations.

The government’s proposed new Infrastructure Bill will potentially include new rules that will make it easier for shale gas fracking companies to exploit deposits across the UK. The government is consulting on changes to the law to free extraction companies from having to seek permission from owners to drill under their houses and land for shale gas and oil. Notes accompanying the speech make it clear that this measure will be added to the Bill following the 12-week consultation.

"Subject to consultation, this Bill would support the development of gas and oil from shale and geothermal energy by clarifying and streamlining the underground access regime. The government is currently running a full consultation on this policy and the legislation is entirely dependent on the outcome of that consultation,” said the government.

Horizontal drilling, which is a key feature of shale gas fracking, allows drilling to extend sideways up to 3km underground. But shale gas developers are currently facing a legal block with owners denying them permission under trespass laws to drill under their properties. Under new proposals to reform trespass laws, companies will be allowed to drill under private property without having to ask or require permission.

The government see shale gas fracking as an essential part of the country’s future energy security, and has already offered tax breaks to companies prepared to exploit UK resources. The proposals also open up the possibility of geothermal fracking in the UK, which could boost renewable thermal energy output by accessing “hot rocks” beneath the Earth’s surface.

The shale gas industry welcomed the plans. “Horizontal drilling is an efficient and effective way of sourcing this important fuel while minimising any potential impact by reducing the need for surface facilities. Shale gas drilling will be deep underground and far less intrusive than many other energy sources,” said Marcus Pepperell, a spokeperson for industry body, Shale Gas Europe.

Other announcements in the speech outlining government plans for the next session of parliament will see changes to the plan for new homes to be “zero-carbon” by 2016. The government is proposing to allow developers to meet the new standards by paying for off-site alternatives, rather than incorporating energy efficiency measures and renewables. Small building sites will be exempt altogether. The government argues that it is not always technically feasible or cost-effective for house builders to reduce to “zero” all emissions embodied in a house-building programme.

Nick Blyth, policy and practice lead at IEMA, welcomed clarification of the long-delayed policy, but argued that the “allowable solutions” element of zero carbon homes should continue to be viewed the final stage of a carbon reduction hierarchy approach. “The policy emphasis is first and foremost placed on at source carbon reductions through zero carbon design and energy efficiency. Carbon compensation however through offsetting and other projects will have a role to play on any residual emissions,” he said.

The Renewable Energy Association (REA), however, claimed that owners of new homes now face paying for the carbon cuts without benefitting from lower energy bills. It chief executive, Dr Nina Skorupska, said: "Imagine energy bills under £300. That's what energy efficiency and renewable technologies, like solar panels, wood fuel boilers and heat pumps, can offer.”

The government has also announced plans to increase the number of homes being built, including new “garden cities”, and measures will be introduced to speed up the planning process making it much easier and quicker for developers to get planning permission.

The government is now planning to follow the devolved government by introducing a 5p charge for plastic bags issued by retailers. The new levy, due to be introduced in October, is expected to reduce the 7 billion plastic carrier bags currently handed out at supermarkets and other retailers every year. The tax has already been introduced in both Northern Ireland and Wales, and the Scottish government confirmed in May that it would apply a 5p levy to plastic bags from October.

Blyth at IEMA welcomed the levy: “Green taxes, which this 5p charge certainly is, have the potential to drive environment and sustainability right to the heart of business and consumer decision making. We support the approach to introduce a tax on plastic carrier bags and also more broadly the approach and principle of environmental taxation.”

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