Government has today offered new licences for onshore oil and gas, many of which are expected to result in exploration for and production of oil and gas using fracking.
27 licences have been offered, with a further 132 that have been assessed for their environmental impact announced and opened up to consultation.
Government's claim is that the 132 licences that remain up for consultation are the environmentally sensitive licences. They rightly identify potential impacts on sites such as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas that are important for wildlife at a European level and designated as such.
But in the 27 licences that are going ahead without this extra scrutiny, there are 53 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and three RSPB reserves. This is clearly the first manifestation of Government dropping a promise to ban fracking in SSSIs.
RSPB Fairburn Ings, Dearne Valley and Langford Lowfield are all included in the 27 new licences. I visited Fairburn Ings a few years ago and it's a beautiful reserve on the site of a former coal mine, but we definitely don't want to see fossil fuel extraction return here. It's now the site of a huge lake and beautiful woodlands that are home to woodpeckers, swans and kingfishers. Fracking at these 53 SSSIs or RSPB reserves could put birds like godwits, goldeneyes and bitterns at risk.
Amber Rudd, now Secretary of State for Climate Change, made the to rule out SSSIs promise back in February, but dropped SSSIs from the list of Protected Areas when it issued new secondary legislation in June. It still promises to rule out fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites, but hasn't done so yet.
Government should attach conditions to fracking licences banning surface activity in all Protected Areas including SSSIs.
But, protecting our most important wildlife sites wouldn't be the end of the chapter on fracking. We still don't think the regulatory regime for fracking is fit for purpose, and we're yet to see a compelling case that fracking is compatible with our climate change targets (we await a report the Committee on Climate Change must make to Government on this issue by 2016).
Government appears to be rushing ahead with fracking, putting some of our most precious and sensitive wildlife at risk. Instead, their priority should be ensuring long-term support and certainty for the low-carbon and renewable industry that can help to drive down our climate change emissions.
We will be looking very closely at the detail of the 132 licences, sharing more analysis, and responding to Government's consultation in the coming days.
Summer is normally considered a fairly quiet period politically, but on the fracking front things are hotting up.
Today Government made the latest in a string of announcements, the most important part of which was to issue a plea for local authorities to process planning applications for fracking more quickly, given the important national need for our energy security and economy to kickstart the fracking industry.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government threatens to decide applications himself where they are taking too long.
Seeking a more efficient planning system mustn't be at the expense of the quality of the decisions made. There's no point putting undue pressure on local authorities to hurry decisions about an unconventional technology and fossil fuel resource.
Instead, Government should be promoting a more cautious and careful approach than normal that offers the utmost protection for people and the environment. No one, Government, industry, communities or NGOs want to see the wrong decisions made about where fracking should be allowed.
Today's announcement came against the backdrop of a worrying approach to fracking from Government - only a few weeks ago they dropped a promise to ban fracking in Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and delayed fulfilling a promise to ban it in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
We're not convinced that the regulations around fracking are fit for purpose, and Government's priority should be getting those in order and ruling out our most important wildlife sites, before rushing ahead with rolling out permission to frack (Government plans to announce new fracking licences this Summer).
What's more, we still haven't seen compelling evidence that fracking is compatible with the UK's carbon budgets (we eagerly await the Committee on Climate Change's report on this by April 2016).
The Committee on Climate Change made it clear that fracking could only be compatible with our near term carbon budgets if other sectors of the economy made cuts in emissions. If the Government is to push ahead with fracking this makes it more important than ever that Government explain how they will guarantee a secure future for the low carbon industry, particularly given closures and cuts for schemes and subsidies in recent weeks.
RSPB is asking Government to:
- rule out fracking in all protected areas, including SSSIs - address a number of other weaknesses in the regulation around fracking- demonstrate that fracking is compatible with our climate change commitments - provide long-term security for the low-carbon sector beyond 2020