Fracking companies will be allowed to drill horizontally under national parks and other protected areas if the wells start just outside their boundaries, after the government rowed back on its earlier acceptance of new environmental protections.
Ministers were forced to accept a series of new regulations from Labour on 26 January after facing defeat by concerned backbenchers, but the final amendments passed by MPs on Monday unpicked many of them. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas accusing ministers of “doing the dirty work of fracking companies for them”, but the government move was welcomed by the nascent shale gas industry.
The Labour amendments had ruled out fracking for shale gas in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), sites of special scientific interest and groundwater source protection zones (SPZs). A Guardian analysis revealed that this measure ruled out 40% of the large area of England being offered by the government for future shale gas exploration.
But energy and climate change minister Amber Rudd told MPs on Wednesday: “In the case of AONBs and national parks, given their size and dispersion, it might not be practical to guarantee that fracking will not take place under them in all cases without unduly constraining the industry.”
Rudd also deferred the definition of “protected areas”, potentially leaving most groundwater SPZs without any protection at all. These make up a quarter of the 40% ruled out by Labour’s measures, according to the Guardian analysis.
Rudd said: “We must not rush this now, because we would risk putting in place restrictions in areas in a way that does not achieve the intended aim, or that goes beyond it and needlessly damages the potential development of the shale industry.”
David Cameron has said the government is “going all out” for shale gas in the UK, claiming it would create thousands of jobs and cut reliance on imports. But opponents argue that high-pressure fracturing of rocks to release gas risks health and environmental impacts and will undermine the country’s climate change goals.
Labour’s shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex said allowing fracking under protected areas could lead them to be “ringed by shale gas operators.” He said: “The range of protections [accepted by the government in January] cannot be cherry-picked. It is vital for groundwater, and sources of drinking water, to be properly protected.”
Greatrex also accused ministers of going back on a commitment that Health and Safety Executive inspections of drilling sites would be unannounced. Labour says it will push its measures through if it wins the general election in May.
“What a mockery this is making of legitimate public concerns on fracking, and indeed of the democratic process,” said Lucas, criticising the limited time the government made available for the debate.
Other changes reversed on Monday included residents being notified on an individual basis of shale gas operations in their area, gas leaks other than methane being recorded and a legal requirement for environmental impact assessments at sites.
The chief executive of trade body UK Onshore Oil and Gas, Ken Cronin, welcomed the passing of the government’s bill: “The industry can get on with finding out the extent of the recoverable reserves of natural gas below our feet. Many of the issues raised in the amendments are already complied with by the industry voluntarily.” He said the industry looked forward to clarification of the rules covering protected areas.
But Greenpeace energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: “The government has backtracked to weaken fracking regulations, including those that should protect our vital drinking water supplies, [which] simply proves that we need a moratorium on fracking. Despite Labour’s efforts to strengthen them, the regulations passed today are so full of loopholes that they cannot be trusted to protect our water, countryside or climate.”
Nick Clack, senior energy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “The government claimed to have introduced strong legal safeguards on fracking to protect the countryside and communities. Now ministers have undermined that claim and further eroded public confidence.”
One controversial measure not opposed by Labour was the change to trespass laws to allow fracking companies to drill beneath people’s homes without their permission. “This ignores the public interest in pursuit of the vested interests of a few,” said Lucas. However, Conservative MP Peter Lilley, said: “I urge [MPs] not to be frightened by those who are trying to scare us into failing to exploit a resource that is potentially of immense value to this country.”
Labour has backed the fracking moratoriums declared by the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. But the party did not back a move in Westminster for a moratorium in England. A nationwide moratorium had been supported by a cross-party select committee of MPs, including former Conservative environment secretary Caroline Spelman.
The LibDems did not respond to a request to set out their position on the fracking regulations.
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