THE Oil and Gas Authority on Thursday awarded a raft of new licences to explore for oil and gas on the mainland of the UK.
The 93 licences to explore 159 blocks of land could pave the way for more controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Parts of the Yorkshire, the Midlands, and the North West have been opened for exploration. There are also licence blocks in the South of England and Wales.
Around 75% of the exploration licences relate the shale oil and gas. Thursday’s licences give rights to companies to explore for shale oil and gas, but do not give automatic permission to drill. Planning permission to build rigs and drill land needs clearance from local or central authorities.
Earlier this year, councillors in Lancashire rejected shale gas firm Cuadrilla’s application to drill a handful of shale gas exploratory wells. There would be too much noise and the impact on the landscape would be too great, they said. But the final decision will be made by central government.
Thursday’s licence announcement followed Tuesday evening’s debate in the House of Commons when MPs voted to allow fracking for shale gas 1,200m below national parks and other protected sites. The new regulations, which permit drilling from outside the protected areas, were approved by 298 to 261.
The government claimed its plans would protect ‘our most precious landscapes’. MPs overwhelmingly rejected a bid to suspend drilling for shale gas in a House of Commons vote in January, during which ministers also pledged an ‘outright ban’ on fracking in national parks.
Labour has said the government’s plans, contained in a draft regulation, represent a U-turn on this commitment, and called for stronger safeguards. The proposals, first set out in July, would only allow fracking 1,200m below national parks, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads and World Heritage Sites.
The drill rigs would have to be positioned outside the boundaries of the protected areas.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which are designated to protect wildlife or geology, are not mentioned. MPs opposed the passing of the draft regulation when it was read out in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening.
Because this happened after the conclusion of the day’s main business, parliamentary rules required the vote to be deferred until Wednesday. Under this process of so-called deferred divisions, MPs voted on the proposal by filling in ballot papers with the result announced later by Deputy Speaker Natascha Engel.
Opposition parties and campaigners criticised the lack of a House of Commons debate. They accused ministers of a U-turn as they previously pledged an outright ban on fracking in national parks. Shadow energy secretary Lisa Nandy accused ministers of using a ‘parliamentary backdoor’ to try to approve the ‘weak regulations’ without debate.
She said: ‘Fracking should not go ahead in Britain until stronger safeguards are in place to protect drinking water sources and sensitive parts of our countryside like national parks.’ Four Tories voted against the government on Tuesday evening, including London mayoral candidate and environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith and Sarah Wollaston, whose Totnes seat includes Dartmoor national park.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the government had shown a ‘complete lack of regard for protecting some of the most beautiful scenery in the UK and its wildlife’. Greenpeace criticised the use of what it called an ‘arcane parliamentary process’. Hannah Martin of Greenpeace said: ‘Bad news. Our MPs have just voted to allow fracking under national parks and wildlife protection zones.
‘It was a close vote. 298 MPs voted in favour of weak regulations, with 261 voting against. If just 5% of MPs had voted the other way, this could have been a very different story. What this now means is that national parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), World Heritage Sites, and Groundwater Protection Zones could end up circled by rigs as fracking firms try to drill horizontally to extract gas from underneath.
‘The North Yorkshire Moors, the Peak District, the South Downs or the Bowland Forest – these are just some of the well known areas at risk. ‘And even without going into the long list of threats that fracking poses, there’s a reason these areas deserve better protections. Often they’re home to endangered wildlife or fragile ecosystems.
‘When we visit these places we don’t expect noise from compressors, the sight of dozens of heavy-goods vehicles thundering by, or 24/7 flood-lighting and industrial noise – all of which the fracking industry is likely to bring.
‘The announcement is even more shocking given it comes just days after a historic climate deal was agreed at the UN in Paris. This agreement was celebrated internationally as a clear signal that we are coming to the end of the fossil fuel era.
‘If we are to hold up our end of the Paris climate deal then it’s completely incompatible to continue to support fracking – an entirely new form of fossil fuel extraction in the UK. Personally I’m shocked that instead of focusing on safe, cheap and clean energy that David Cameron wants to force fracking on us – and that his government is even prepared to water down regulations that would have at least protected some of the country’s most fragile areas.
‘But what gives me hope is that the movement to stop fracking is stronger than ever. Across the UK there are hundreds of local groups working tirelessly to oppose the industry. And there are thousands of more of us who’ve spoken out against the government’s plans.’
Friends of the Earth said on Wednesday: ‘Controversial new rules, pushed through by the government today to allow fracking in protected areas that surround and feed water into drinking aquifers, put many households’ drinking water at risk of contamination.
‘The plans will also allow fracking under national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty – a U-turn on the Minister’s earlier promise of an “outright ban” on fracking in these areas. The government had tried to appease concerns by ruling out fracking in national parks, and straight through drinking water aquifers, but has been criticised for still allowing fracking in the protected areas that feed water into aquifers and under national parks.
‘With the government plans to open up vast new swathes of the country, thousands of households’ drinking water could be at risk. Friends of the Earth believes that the government should have allowed all MPs an opportunity to scrutinise the plans in a full debate in the House of Commons.’
Rose Dickinson, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth said: ‘The government’s own draft report found contaminated water poses risks to human health. Yet these new rules will put our drinking water and national parks at risk of fracking; a complete U-turn on earlier promises.
‘People will rightly be concerned that the government is not following through on its commitment to have strong regulation on fracking. It is time for us to follow in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales by halting all plans for fracking, which is completely incompatible with tackling climate change and the agreement reached in Paris.’ Friends of the Earth is campaigning for a full ban on fracking.