Today, in the nick of time before MPs leave Westminster for the Summer, Government published some new legislation on fracking. But what was announced today was a bitter disappointment for anyone who cares about providing the utmost protection to our most important wildlife sites.
These new rules on fracking were promised back in January this year, at the time of the Infrastructure Act. The Government at the time made a commitment - the Minister's comments to the House are here (26 Jan 2015, Column 586) and the DECC website still shows this commitment here - to an outright ban on fracking in protected areas that would include Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks, in other words some of our most precious places for their wildlife and landscapes.
But, the follow up legislation brought out today was a let down in two key ways:
1. Government removed SSSIs from the list. These extremely important wildlife sites will no longer benefit from an outright fracking ban, with Government claiming that existing protections are sufficient.
2. For National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (as well as The Broads and World Heritage Sites) Government has ruled out hydraulic fracturing (unless it's deeper than 1200m) - the process that happens beneath the surface. But Government included nothing in today's legislation limiting the wells or any of the other surface infrastructure, which could still be located within any protected area.
Government did today reiterate its commitment to ruling out wells and surface infrastructure within protected areas, but gave no detail on how or when this might happen. And if they can renege on protecting SSSIs, this casts doubt on whether they'll stick to that promise.
Even if Government does keep its word, fracking wells could still end up dangerously close to protected areas, with pollution and noise and light disturbance affecting the watercourses and wildlife within them.
What's more, many of the other improvements to regulation for the fracking industry that we and other organisations have been calling for remain unaddressed. And there is growing evidence that it could be tough to make sure fracking doesn't bust the UK's carbon budgets, and that even if this is achieved, it's likely to displace fossil fuels elsewhere and result in a global growth in climate change emissions.
It's safe to say that, in the UK, we don't yet seem to be fit to frack.
I want to howl with anguish about this. It's not as though our SSSIs are in top condition anyway so reducing the amount of protection they have makes the designation almost meaningless.
Sounds like what they did was a bit of an inadequate, last-minute effort. Perhaps their minds were on the 10% pay rise they've just awarded themselves.
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