Protecting the best... from fracking

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Protecting the best... from fracking

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I started the year (here) focusing on the need to protect our finest wildlife sites - whether locally, nationally or internationally significant. For the Government to have a chance of realising its ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in an enhanced state to the next, it must improve protection and management of our jewels in the crown - just 35% of SSSIs, for example, are currently in favourable condition.

So when I woke this morning to hear that fracking might be excluded from protected areas, I thought that this was good news.

Earlier this year, the RSPB, the National Trust and other countryside conservation groups published a major review of the risks fracking could pose to the natural environment in the UK. Alongside this report, we put forward ten recommendations that would strengthen how this industry is regulated and would go some way to addressing these risks. Our headline recommendation was to create shale gas exclusion zones that include National Parks, Areas of Natural Beauty (AONBs) and sites protected at the national and European level for wildlife.

As the details of today's announcement have been released (here), it has become clear that National Parks and AONBs were still to be made available for shale gas licensing, but a fracking development would only take place within them if it can be shown to be ‘exceptional circumstances’.   It seems that the Secretary of State will call in any challenge to such a decision to ensure this is implemented.

This is not the absolute protection that we hoped for. It is, however, an important and welcome step forward for two reasons. First, it sends a clear signal to planners that they should reject applications for any fracking related developments within these sites. Second, it endorses the concept that some places are not appropriate for fracking.

Yet, surely wildlife sites should also be added to the list. Why add to the pressures that these sites already face?

Through the course of the day, it was good to see others pick up this issue, such as Natalie Bennett, who asks here whether this principle should be applied to places important for people too.

The partner organisations behind the ‘Are we fit to frack?’ reports today issued a response the announcement noting that whilst it is a positive development it must be built upon if we are to keep special places special.  This response is shown below.

Let me know what you think about today's announcement on fracking.

It would be great to hear your views.

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New onshore licensing round opens – Joint response

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 be seen as a major development and will therefore 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 look forward to working with Government to make further progress in these areas. 

Comments
  • Fair point, Bob.  We don't want anything to compromise our ambition for landscape scale conservation.

  • Martin,  I really would like to see not just 'protecting the best from fracking' but also 'protecting the rest from fracking'.  There are many local good wildlife sites that have no designation whatsoever and just from seeing the destruction of wildlife corridors for development in my area this countrywide approach to potential licensing does cause me concern.

  • It is very disappointing and another failure of this Government that designated wildlife sites have not been treated in the same way as National Parks and AONBs. Of course some wildlife sites are in NPs and AONBs but many are not.

    I have to say I think this is just another indicator, in a long line of indicators, showing that this Government has little or no regard for the desperate state of our wildlife and its biodiversity losses.At times they almost seem antagonistic towards it.