Following hot on the heels of former Environmental Agency chair Lord Smith’s report that offered conditional endorsement for shale gas production, MPs have voted for legislation allowing fracking under national parks in the UK.
The new legislation that has just been passed (with 298 MPs voting in favour of the motion, and 261 against) allows for fracking to occur 1200m below both national parks and also sites of special scientific interest in the UK. Sites of special scientific interest include special conservation areas and take up around 8% of the England’s land.
The only caveat is that the drilling must not occur within any protected areas. However, this only applies to the actual entry point of the drill; activists have pointed out that this restriction could easily be skirted by drilling into the protected areas horizontally from underground, for example.
The move is one that is likely to draw criticism and not just from those staunchly opposed to fracking in general. Back in January, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd (who, at the time was the undersecretary of state for climate change) explicitly promised to do the exact opposite of what has just been done.
“We have agreed an outright ban on fracking in national parks and sites of special scientific interest” she said, in a statement to MPs.
MPs pushed the vote on the legislation through using what is known as a statutory instrument in order to bypass the need for a debate in commons.
Labour’s shadow energy secretary, Lisa Nandy, criticised this, claiming that “a parliamentary back door” had been used “to put through these weak regulation without a proper debate.”
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron also criticised the use of the statutory instrument, describing it as a “parliamentary wheeze.”
Lisa Nandy is herself opposed to fracking in general, at least until enough safeguards and assurances could be made to prevent any negative effects on the environment generally and more specifically the communities living in the areas where the fracking would be taking place.
She was also openly critical of the about turn the government appear to have undergone in now permitting what they had previously said they would not.
She said: “Ministers had previously conceded there should be the tougher safeguards that Labour has been calling for to protect drinking water sources and sensitive parts of our countryside like national parks. Now they have abandoned those promises.”
Caroline Lucas of the Green Party was harshly critical not just of the decision to relax restrictions on fracking itself, but also of our government’s general attitude towards energy policy, especially given the context of the recent agreement reached in Paris.
“To have any realistic chance of keeping global warming to well under two degrees we need to ban fracking in the UK,” she said, claiming that “not only does fracking fly in the face of the climate science but mounting evidence suggest it won’t lower bills.”
Lord Smith’s recent report on the fracking industry took a more compromising approach to fracking than Lucas. Indeed it claimed to show that the technique is one that should be considered viable economically and environmentally but that in order for it to be so, green energy initiatives should be pursued at the same time. He called for an “even-handed” approach towards both energy producing means.
The representative body for the UK onshore oil and gas industry (UKOOG) attempted to assuage worries from the likes of Lucas, Nandy and Farron, saying that “it is important to recognise that any future hydraulic fracturing for shale will take place several kilometres underground and as in industry we take all possible steps to minimise our impact on the environment and the surrounding communities.”
The statement released by UKOOG unequivocally claimed that “the onshore oil industry takes the protection of our natural world seriously,” pointing to what they described as “a long track record of developing oil and gas fields successfully and safely in environmentally sensitive areas.”