With fewer than 100 days until the General Election, one of the last big pieces of legislation of this Parliament – the Infrastructure Bill – was debated in the House of Commons yesterday. I’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for several weeks for yesterday’s debate.
Many elements of the Infrastructure Bill relate to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This technology could allow companies to access unconventional new reserves of gas and oil in shale rock formations deep beneath the ground in the UK.
For many months since the publication of the Are we fit to frack? study, the RSPB and a group of other environmental groups have been making it clear that we don’t believe the regulation around this growing new industry is robust enough to protect our wildlife, habitats and landscapes.
In particular, we’ve been concerned that fracking could go ahead in protected areas like Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), particularly at a time when the RSPB is already worried about proposals to build 5000 homes on a SSSI in Kent or a solar farm on one in Dorset.
So, we were pleased to see Government take a number of sensible steps during yesterday’s debate on fracking.
In particular, Government confirmed that there will be a ban on fracking in National parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. This is a good result our wildlife and habitats in the UK.
While this announcement does not cover all protected areas, it does go further than the previous planning guidance that advised against fracking in just some of these sites, and would still have allowed it to go ahead in exceptional circumstances.
Government also accepted a number of changes to the Bill, put forward in amendments by the Opposition, that could improve the regulation around fracking.
These changes include, for example, mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments, something we have also been calling for.
And because we’re also concerned that exploring for new fossil fuel reserves is a bad idea when the UK should be bringing its emissions down, we were also pleased to see Government say that they will be asking the independent Committee on Climate Change to report on whether fracking is compatible with the UK’s climate change targets.
It wasn’t all good news yesterday, and changes did go ahead to permit fracking more than 300m beneath private land without the landowner’s consent. This is bad news for landowners like the RSPB with sensitive sites that often rely on delicate aquatic ecosystems.
But on the whole we are cautiously optimistic about yesterday’s result and we’ll be watching closely to see how the detail of these changes is worked out in the coming weeks.
Later today, a committee of MPs will discuss amendments to the Infrastructure Bill. We believe some of the most important surround assurance that our protected sites remain protected.
We believe in the rush to develop Britain's fracking potential, we have a duty to ensure that our natural environment is not spoilt in the process.
There are many environmental concerns, including: the over abstraction of water; the disturbance of sensitive wildlife, such as pink-footed geese; the fragmentation of habitat; and water pollution. Because of these concerns, we believe it's essential that sensitive wildlife sites should be avoided, alongside valued landscapes, as these fragile locations could be disproportionately affected.
Properly amending the Infrastructure Bill to include a presumption against the development of fracking in our most treasured sites would help address one of the most urgent threats to nature.
Many partner organisations share our concerns, including: the National Trust; the Angling Trust; the Salmon and Trout Association, the Wildlife Trusts, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.