The Angling Trust, National Trust, RSPB, the Salmon and Trout Association, The Wildlife Trusts and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust earlier this year published a major review of the risks that shale gas extraction (‘fracking’) could pose in the UK and put forward ten recommendations to address these risks.
Our review concluded that fracking poses a range of significant risks to the natural environment. Given these risks, and the high level of uncertainty about them, we called for special areas that are particularly sensitive to be protected outright from development. This would best be achieved by not licensing or permitting shale gas extraction, or exploration activity in these areas in the first place. Removing these sensitive areas from the area that was being considered for the 14th licensing round would reduce the total area being offered for licence by just 12%.
We welcome Government’s announcement that National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty will be afforded special protection and fracking developments will only be allowed within them under ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Whilst this reflects existing planning policy, confirmation that fracking will have to pass this test is a useful step in the right direction. Critically, this is also the first time that Government have recognised the need for special places to be protected from fracking. There are, however, two fundamental problems with this approach that need addressing.
Firstly, various tests already exist in the planning system that will apply to developments in areas designated as special for one reason or the other. It’s unclear at this stage requiring fracking to pass an ‘exceptional circumstances’ test will add to these existing safeguards or indeed what is meant by ‘exceptional’.
We are therefore concerned that this ambiguity will only be resolved when a developer attempts to challenge these rules through the planning system. This uncertainty is exactly the scenario that the industry, the public and conservationists want to avoid, and that could be dispelled through simply not licensing these areas and thereby establishing exclusion zones.
Secondly, wildlife sites, including Special Protection Areas, Special Areas for Conservation and Sites of Scientific Interest as well as nature reserves and Local Wildlife Sites, have been excluded from the new safeguards. This is a missed opportunity to ensure that these sites, which are highly sensitive and are of great natural value, are properly protected from the outset. We strongly urge Government to review this decision.
In our report, Are we fit to frack?, we put forward a number of other recommendations that dealt with how the fracking industry is regulated. These include, for example, requiring all applications for fracking developments to do a statutory environmental impact assessment, and independent monitoring of key environmental risks such as methane leakage. Many of these recommendations have not yet been addressed and with the 14th licensing round taking place this year they are becoming ever more urgent.
We now urge the Government to make further progress in these areas.