MPs have voted to allow fracking beneath Britain’s national parks - but what impact could this have on our most celebrated landscapes? Hanna Lindon talks to Ruth Bradshaw, policy and research manager at the Campaign for National Parks to find out.
In a controversial move on Wednesday, MPs voted in favour of new rules that allow fracking 1,200 metres below national parks and other protected sites. The government was accused of ‘sneaking’ the measure through parliament without allowing a proper debate of the issues involved.
We caught up with Ruth Bradshaw, policy and research manager at the Campaign for National Parks, to find out how the new regulations were passed so quickly and why they constitute a threat to the UK’s most beautiful areas.
HL: Earlier this year the government promised a ban on fracking in national parks – do you think this new decision constitutes a betrayal of that promise?
RB: Yes, we think it is backtracking on the very public commitment they made back in January as part of the infrastructure bill. It was very clearly stated that there would be no fracking in or under national parks.
Is it unusual, on such an issue of widespread concern, that there was no discussion in Parliament prior to the vote?
The decision has been implemented through a secondary legislation, so there’s not the same scrutiny as there would be on a bill of primary legislation. The government would argue that the issue has been considered by committees in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, but because these are just small committees there was no widespread debate among MPs.
In the case of a bill, MPs can put forward amendments for discussion, but there was no option of that in this case because of the particularly parliamentary process that was used to get these regulations through.
And why do you think it was done like that?
The government is very keen to push ahead with fracking, and this is just one example of that ambition. In terms of their wider agenda, they have released statements making it clear that, should local planning committees not process fracking applications quickly enough, these applications will be taken over by the government.
Why weren’t the public and campaigning organisations made aware of the vote sooner?
The draft regulations were published back in the summer, but there was no consultation on them – this particular parliamentary process isn’t one that makes it easy for people to engage in. We only found out late on Tuesday that the vote would take place on Wednesday.
Do you know as yet which MPs voted for the proposals and which voted against?
My understanding is that there were only four Conservatives who voted against it, so it would have been largely Conservative MPs.
Why are national parks so important in the fracking debate – do they cover areas that are particularly rich in shale gas?
National parks generally tend to have quite interesting geology, because that’s partly what contributes to making them beautiful. However, it isn’t only national parks that are affected by this decision. The day after MPs voted on regulations that would determine which areas would be protected from fracking on the surface, licenses were issued that included national parks but also Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). It’s important to recognise that fracking could affect lots of other parts of the countryside – not just national parks.
So licenses have already been issued to companies with an interest in fracking beneath national parks and AONBs…that seems like a quick turnaround!
I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the licenses were issued the day after the vote! The regulations that MPs voted in on Wednesday set out the areas that were to be protected from fracking on the surface – AONBs, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), World Heritage sites, regions identified as important for groundwater and national parks – but in all of these fracking is to be allowed below a depth of 1,200 metres. The next part of the process involves licensing, which is when companies bid for the oil and gas rights in a particular area, and on Thursday the government announced licenses for several areas.
Which national parks did those licenses cover?
Parts of the Peak District and the North York Moors, as well as a small area on the edge of Exmoor. Previous licensing rounds have included other parts of the Peak District and North York Moors, as well as the South Downs. There is a moratorium on fracking in Scotland and Wales, so at the moment it will only be English national parks that may be affected.
Is fracking already taking place in or around our national parks?
No, as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been a successful application of fracking yet in the UK.
What are your concerns about the likely impact of fracking developments on national parks?
Where companies have licenses to drill beneath national parks, they will obviously want to set up operations close to the edge of the protected areas. That could have a huge impact on the tranquility of national park margins and the light pollution in those areas. The other problem is that fracking generally involves lots of lorry movements, so that could result in increased traffic through national parks.
Are there likely to be any environmental impacts of deep drilling within the national parks themselves?
Well that’s really the wider concern – we don’t know enough about what the impacts of fracking are at depth on the geology and hydrology of a particular area. So we don’t know, for example, whether the vegetation on the surface might be affected. Our argument is that the government should have applied the precautionary principle of not going ahead with something that could be potentially environmentally damaging without knowing what impact it might have.
The vote might be done and dusted, but is there anything that the public can do to oppose these plans – at the planning stage, for example?
Yes. Any proposed operation will still need planning permission, even when a company has a license for a particular area. People living in the areas mentioned above should keep an eye out for applications that come forward. Remember that local authorities in the areas surrounding national parks have a duty to take account of what impact their decisions will have on the park, so this could be a potential pressure point.
How about people who don’t live in these areas but have a real interest in keeping national parks pristine because they enjoy walking or climbing there – is there anything they can do?
I’d encourage people to sign up for our newsletter and support our work. Clearly we are going to monitor what’s happening – it’s a little early to say what we’re going to do next, but we’d like to consider whether we can get this decision reversed in the future.
How, in your opinion, can the need for cleaner domestic energy be balanced against the need to protect areas of incredible natural beauty like national parks?
We’re clear that national parks have to play their role in terms of energy infrastructure, but it needs to be appropriate in terms of scale and type to that setting. For instance, small-scale hydro schemes often do work well in national parks. The problem with fracking is both the potential scale of it, and also that we don’t know what the environmental impact might be.
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