Why SSSIs aren't fit to frack

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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

Why SSSIs aren't fit to frack

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Last week, former US Vice President Al Gore was the latest (here) to question the wisdom of fracking in our finest wildlife sites yet in my discussions at Labour and Lib Dem conferences over the past couple of weeks there seems to be some confusion about what is actually happening.

With a string of Westminster Government announcements and consultations in recent months, as well as a u-turn or two to boot, the situation around fracking has become more complicated, if no less contested by different, often vocally expressed, opinions.

I hope that this blog can help to straighten some things out and clarify our position.

This summer, the Westminster Government announced 159 new licences for onshore oil and gas in England. Many of these could lead to the use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to access new reserves of oil and gas trapped in the shale rock formations beneath our countryside. The licences are just the first step, and companies will also need to apply for planning permission and go through other approvals before they can begin exploring for fossil fuels.

New analysis conducted by my colleagues have shown that 293 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (national important sites for wildlife) fall within the 159 licences, but outside other protected areas (such as National Parks) where government has committed to ban fracking. These 293 SSSIs make up just 0.9% of the area of the licence blocks that have been awarded yet are vitally important for wildlife.

Also in the 159 licence blocks, at times overlapping with these SSSIs, are nine RSPB reserves – places like Bempton Cliffs, Fairburn Ings and Nagshead, which will be well known (and loved) to many RSPB members.

David Wooton's image of RSPB Fairburn Ings

Government has also issued licences that cover the Forest of Dean, the Somerset Levels, Salisbury Plain and large parts of Dorset, as well as much of the North of England.

Recent signals are that the Westminster Government is keen to press ahead with the growth of a fracking industry to provide a bridge between coal power and renewables. A blog last week from Minister Andrea Leadsom said that opposition from the ‘anti-fracking’ lobby was costing time and money.  

This intervention reminds me of some conversations that we had during the consultation over the National Planning Policy Framework in 2011 which suggested that SSSIs were fair game for development and that was in the interest of economic development.  I said at the time and I’ll say again, economic development that is reliant on the needless destruction of our finest wildlife sites is the wrong form of economic development.  In the end, we won the argument and we hope to do so again.

Since 2014, we’ve argued that greenhouse gas emissions associated with fracking must be consistent with legally binding carbon budgets and we have called for a tougher regulatory regime for this new onshore industry in the UK, in order to ensure the environment is protected.  Specifically, we called for frack-free zones that ruled out development in all protected areas.

In February this year we thought we had achieved a partial victory when Amber Rudd, at the time a Government minister in DECC, announced that fracking would be banned outright in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and SSSIs.

Then, in July, the Government brought forward legislation that ruled out fracking beneath protected areas at anything less than a depth of 1200m. This list of protected areas included National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, World Heritage Sites and The Broads. But SSSIs were absent from that list.

At the time, the Westminster Government reiterated a promise to ban fracking at the surface within this list of protected areas (now excluding SSSIs).

When the 159 new licences were announced, they were accompanied by an environmental assessment of each licence.  European sites for wildlife (Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas and Ramsar sites) have now essentially been ruled out from fracking at the surface.  That’s good news which we welcomed in the consultation response we submitted today.

But we also think that the same protection should apply to other sites too. We’d like to see government rule out fracking in their whole list of protected areas AND Sites of Special Scientific Interest. 85% of SSSIs in the licences are sheltered by other protected areas. So ruling out SSSIs from fracking would affect just an extra 0.9% of the licence block area.

Either the Government is happy to see fracking within SSSIs which would lead to huge public opposition (and no doubt an enormous amount of time and money tied up in planning inquiries) or it doesn’t in which case it should clarify the situation and rule out fracking within 293 very special places for wildlife.

Currently, Government appears to be sending a signal that SSSIs are fair game for development and are of lower value than other protected areas.  This risk is heightened as the Government seems intent on establishing a fracking industry and has said "the number of them [SSSIs] would have an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry".

Fracking under these areas is also not risk free. Fracking infrastructure would need to be placed nearby and associated development would result in noise and light disturbance as well as chemical pollution could put wildlife at risk.  And, of course, it would jeopardise the ambition to deliver the more, bigger, better and joined protected area network that Sir John Lawton has espoused and Defra has embraced.

So, we’re asking Amber Rudd, now Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, to fulfil her promise from February and ban fracking in all protected areas, including SSSIs.

The protection of wildlife sites is our most immediate concern; but we’re still not convinced that the other regulations around fracking are strong enough. And as the UK prepares to play an influential role at international climate negotiations in Paris in December, we’re yet to be convinced that fracking is a good idea when we need to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.

We think it would be common sense to:

  • Rule out fracking in all protected areas, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
  • Apply appropriate boundaries and buffer zones to protected areas to ban fracking near them, where needed.
  • Make sure the regulatory regime around fracking is robust enough to protect people and the environment (see our report from 2014 for our full set of recommendations).
  • Ensure new fossil fuel infrastructure won’t bust our carbon budgets (the Committee on Climate Change will submit a report on this subject by April 2016 at the latest).

If you agree, please do join our campaign (here) and send the Secretary of State a message that SSSIs aren't fit to frack.

  • An excellent blog, Martin. I have written to Amber Rudd in support of your campaign. Perhaps the Governor of the Bank of England's statement yesterday about climate change being the major threat to the economy will concentrate the Government's mind a little!