Fracking set to be banned from 40% of England's shale areas
Fracking is set to be banned on two-fifths of the land in England being offered for shale gas exploration by the government, according to a Guardian analysis.
There were setbacks last week after the Scottish government declared a moratorium and UK ministers were forced to accept a swath of new environmental protections proposed by Labour, leading some analysts to say the outlook for fracking was bleak.
One of those new protections was to rule out fracking in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) andgroundwater source protection zones (SPZs).
Neither the government nor Labour have stated how much of the land available for future shale gas drilling – 60% of England - would be affected by the new bans. But a Guardian data analysis has revealed it is 39.7%, with large swaths of the south and south east off-limits, as well as the Yorkshire Dales and Peak district.
An independent analysis by Greenpeace also found that 45% of the 931 blocks being licensed for fracking in England were at least 50% covered by protected areas, which it said was likely to make them unattractive to fracking companies. Just 3% of of the blocks have no protected areas at all, Greenpeace found.
Ministers were forced to accept Labour’s new environmental rules last week to avoid a rebellion by Conservative and LibDem backbench MPs, many of whom are facing opposition to fracking from constituents. Labour’s shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex told MPs: “Let me make it absolutely clear that our new clause is all or nothing; it cannot be cherry-picked. All the conditions need to be in place before we can be absolutely confident that any shale extraction can happen.”
However, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said: “It is too early to say what areas may be affected under this extension of protections. The government will return to the Lords with a package of measures to give effect to these amendments.” In particular, the Decc spokesman was unable to confirm that all three levels of groundwater special protection zones would remain protected, as the accepted amendment states. This raises the prospect that the government will overturn that measure when the rules are finalised in the Lords.
"The fracking industry is in retreat, with public opposition forcing MPs to respond as the election approaches," said Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Donna Hume. "But it would be cynical of ministers to accept one day that no fracking can take place within any groundwater protection area, and then try to water it down the next day. Any attempt to play politics with rules to protect people's drinking water would be met with contempt by the public."
"The industry will now be thinking long and hard about its plans for unconventional oil and gas development in the UK. The amendments to the bill mean the outlook for the sector is uncertain," said Philip Mace, an oil and gas specialist law firm Clyde & Co. "Investors loathe this sort of uncertainty, so the prospects for shale oil and gas in the UK looks bleak for the short and medium term."
Labour's new protections also create uncertainty for fracking sites which already have licences, but are in the protected areas.
The government said the new rules will not apply retrospectively but many of the affected sites have yet to get all the planning and environmental permissions they require. The sites include Cuadrilla’s Balcombe site (AONB) and Celtique’s Fernhurst site (national park), as well as sites in an SSSI in Cheshire and a groundwater SPZ near Hull. But the changes will not affect Cuadrilla’s two sites in Lancashire, where councillors were last week forced to postpone their final planning decision.
“The shale industry’s seemingly irresistible advance is now looking more and more resistible every day,” said Louise Hutchins at Greenpeace UK. “Unless ministers can explain why fracking is too risky for the South Downs but perfectly safe in the Lancashire countryside, the next obvious step is to ban this controversial technique from the whole of the UK.”
A report last Monday from a committee of senior MPs, including former Conservative environment secretary Caroline Spelman, called for a UK-wide moratorium after concluding fracking was incompatible with the nation’s climate change targets and brought risks to health and the environment. But the proposal was defeated in the Commons.
Ken Cronin, chief executive of the trade body UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said: “It is good news MPs rejected the misguided attempts to introduce a moratorium. Most of the [Labour] amendments agreed are in line with best practice in the industry or codify the directions of regulators, which the industry would naturally comply with. We now need to get on with exploratory drilling to find out the extent of the UK’s oil and gas reserves.”
Geoff Davies, chief executive of Celtique, said: "We are studying the impact of the amendments [and] will make a decision in due course regarding the potential appeal of the Fernhurst planning refusal." Cuadrilla did not respond to a request for comment.
A government source said: "Everyone still wants to get cracking, but they realise you have to take people with you and that is filtering through." Ministers argue that shale gas development will bring jobs and increase the UK's energy security.
The Guardian analysis examined England, which has the large majority of the UK's shale potential. Northern Ireland is covered by a different regime, Scotland has a moratorium on new planning consents for shale, and data for protected areas was not immediately available for Wales.