A new consultation proposal from the DECC, issued on 4th November 2015, stated that the government is now going to ban fracking in SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest). Previously, back in July, the government stated that while it would not allow fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), World Heritage Zones and Source Protection Sites, it would not be implementing a ban on fracking in SSSIs. Before July, the government had indicated that fracking in SSSIs would be banned, so the November statement is a return to its original position.
Even if the government had allowed fracking in SSSIs, it is doubtful that planning permission would be granted in for fracking in an SSSI, and even if it were, lengthy legal conflict might ensue. The government is facing a great deal of opposition to fracking, regardless of the location, so it has probably decided that battles over fracking are best fought out on sites that are not of particular conservation importance.
Fracking under SSSIs still allowed
The government has not banned fracking underneath SSSIs, so provided the surface structures and well are sited outside an SSSI, horizontal fracking would still be permitted under the SSSI at greater than 1,200 metres depth. It is probable that the government considered that the risks of any damage occurring would be minimal so far below the surface.
Comments on changes to fracking policy
Announcing the changes, energy minister Andrea Leadsom stated that she hoped that the public should have confidence in the new regulations, which gave additional protection for highly treasured areas of the UK. She said that fracking ‘could create over 60,000 jobs’ and be of great benefit to the UK economy.
The previous decision not to include SSSIs in the list of banned areas had elicited a great deal of protest from conservation organisations. They have welcomed the change in policy. Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, commented that his organization was delighted that the government has signalled its intention to ban fracking in SSSIs. However, he did not approve of the fact that fracking underneath SSSIs would be allowed. He felt that the wider regulatory regime was still imperfect, and he was not convinced that fracking would fit in with greenhouse gas targets.
Possible fracking sites in the UK
The government has already given fracking companies the licence to explore in many regions around England. These include large areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and West Sussex. There are likely to be considerable protests against fracking in any region where it goes ahead. There were large protests against exploratory oil and gas drilling in Balcombe in West Sussex in 2013, even though permission for fracking was never actually sought (although some opponents maintained that this was the ultimate intention).
Although it seems likely that fracking can be carried out relatively safely if proper precautions are taken, opposition to it will always remain, since it is necessary for considerable amounts of fossil fuels to be left in the ground if global climate change targets are to be met. In April 2015, a group of leading scientists and economists stated that up to 75% of fossil fuels need to remain unexploited if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided.
DECC, ‘Surface development restrictions for hydraulic fracturing’, 4th November 2015. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/473795/Consultation_Surface_Restrictions_-_04_11_2015_FINAL.pdf
Vaughan, A. ‘UK government axes plans for fracking in protected nature sites’, The Guardian, 4th November 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/04/uk-government-axes-plans-for-fracking-in-protected-nature-sites
Cuff, M. Business green website, ‘Government offers partial U-turn on fracking in protected areas’, Business green website, 5th November 2015. http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2433507/government-offers-partial-u-turn-on-fracking-in-protected-areas
Gosden, E. ‘Fracking in the UK: could it happen near you?’ The Daily Telegraph, 18th August 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/fracking/11809113/Fracking-UK-could-it-happen-near-you.html
Vaughan, A. ‘Earth Day: scientists say 75% of fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground’, The Guardian, 22nd April 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/22/earth-day-scientists-warning-fossil-fuels-