The government has made a U-turn on its promise to exclude fracking from Britain’s most important nature sites, arguing that the shale gas industry would be held back if it was excluded from them. Campaigners accused ministers of putting wildlife at risk and reneging on their pledge earlier this year to ban fracking in sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), which cover about 8% of England and similar proportions of Wales and Scotland.
Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, told MPs in January: “We have agreed an outright ban on fracking in national parks [and] sites of special scientific interest”.
But the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which laid draft regulations in parliament on Thursday covering which areas fracking would be excluded from, has confirmed that exploration for shale gas will no longer be prevented in SSSIs. There are 4,000 SSSIs in England, more than 1,000 in Wales and 1,425 in Scotland.
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, said: “The government’s U-turn on protecting the UK’s most precious wildlife sites from fracking is outrageous. It’s yet another illustration that ministers simply cannot be trusted when it comes to fracking.”
A DECC spokesman said: “We consider that their [SSSI’s] protections are adequate under the planning system. Developments won’t normally be permitted if they were going to have an adverse impact on a SSSI. The number of them would have an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry.”
Fracking will still be excluded from national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the Broads and world heritage sites under the new plans, though shale companies will be allowed to put a rig outside a national park and drill horizontally underneath it.
Some of the SSSIs will fall within the borders of those other protected areas, but even so the RSPB believes thousands of SSSIs could potentially be affected.
Matt Williams, a policy officer at the RSPB, said: “The government has reneged on its commitment to rule out fracking in some of our most important wildlife sites.
“Despite promising in January to exclude fracking from SSSIs, today’s announcement ignores any such commitment, leaving some of the UK’s most valuable wildlife sites exposed to risk from future fracking.”
SSSIs are described by government officials as the “best of our wildlife, geological and physiographical heritage”.
Daisy Sands, head of energy at Greenpeace UK, said: “With a few days before recess, this looks like nothing but a blatant attempt to bypass democracy to sneak this deeply unpopular policy in through the back door while no one is looking. Ministers have given concerned citizens up and down the country no opportunity to voice their opposition to the plans that could ruin the countryside, contaminate the water supply and have a devastating impact on the climate.”
The draft regulations, which will be debated in September, also said that fracking would be allowed under protected groundwater source areas, where drinking water is gathered.
Even under the most sensitive of those groundwater areas (SPZ1s), fracking will be allowed so long as it is at depths of more than 1,200 metres. A limit deeper than that would “hinder the exploitation of potentially valuable shale gas reserves”, the regulations said.
No public consultation was held on either the dropping of SSSIs from the list of protected areas from where fracking would be excluded, or how deep the groundwater limits should be set.
The energy minister Andrea Leadsom said in a statement: “The UK has one of the best track records in the world when it comes to protecting our environment while also developing our industries – and we’ve brought that experience to bear on the shale gas protections.”
On Wednesday, a report from the industry-funded UK shale gas task force concluded that it was too early to say whether fracking was good for the UK. It followed the rejection of planning applications for fracking at two sites in Lancashire by the local authority.by