What’s Next for UK Fracking?
By Emma Perrin, Environmental Planner
Following a debate on the Infrastructure Bill on Monday 26th January, MPs voted 308 to 52 to reject an amendment to the Bill imposing a moratorium on fracking. This follows a report issued by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) providing a number of recommendations on the ‘Environmental Risks of Fracking.’
Until now, the main arguments surrounding shale gas in the UK have been on the risks of localised noise nuisance and the potential for contamination of drinking water supplies. However, this week the EAC highlighted the concern that burning shale gas reserves will restrict the ability of the UK to reach its CO2 reduction targets, which is likely to spark national debate on the issue. The EAC note that “Shale gas, like ‘conventional gas’, is not low carbon, and the objective of government policy should be to reduce the carbon intensity of energy whatever its source,” and that “The current debate on fracking reveals a lack of public acceptance, or ‘social licence’, for it.”
The report includes a number of recommendations, including that permit appraisals for fracking activity must consider the cumulative impacts of fracking, and Environmental Impact Assessment should be mandatory for all fracking activities. Although the amendment to the bill was rejected, the government agreed there should be an outright ban of fracking activity in protected and nationally important areas such as National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB’s) and all water source protection zones.
As was predicted in our July 2014 blog ‘Blown Away by Fracking’, the EAC report calls for “a need for a more coherent and more joined-up regulatory system”, which could lead to amendments to the current decision making process by elevating them to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) determination level.
The release of the EAC report came two days before Lancashire County Council decided to defer a decision on Cuadrilla’s planning applications to extract shale gas from its sites on the Fylde Coast. The deferral comes following a recommendation last week by Councillors to reject the applications due to traffic and noise issues. Cuadrilla, the first company in the UK to use modern fracking techniques, have submitted further information to the council in respect of these two issues, on which the council must re-consult before making their decision. The council now have a further eight weeks to come to a decision on Cuadrilla’s proposals. If successful, these applications are expected to pave the way for further planning applications at other sites which have been granted licences in 2008 and from other companies.
What next for fracking activities in the UK? The Infrastructure Bill has now completed all its stages in the House of Commons and will return to the House of Lords for consideration of amendments . The Department for Energy Climate Change (DECC) opened the process for awarding the next round of exploration and development licences in July 2014, but for the moment, the future of plans such as those proposed by Cuadrilla hangs on the outcome of the final stage of the proposed amendments to the Infrastructure Bill. Either way, it’s likely fracking will remain the subject of contentious debate in the near future as part of the solution to the ongoing pursuit to render the UK energy-independent.
 The role of the EAC is to consider the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and to audit their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/role/