Under the new guidance, even Stonehenge could by destroyed by fracking if it would 'achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh that harm or loss.'
Fracking go-ahead on UK's National Parks, World Heritage Sites, nature reserves
28th July 2014
The UK has just opened a bidding round for fracking licences. But the rules contain only weak protections against fracking in National Parks and AONBs - and none at all for even the most important wildlife sites and drinking water aquifers.
Why didn't the Government just exclude fracking from these areas?
A new round of bidding opened up today for oil and gas companies to secure licences to frack across the UK.
Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said that shale gas would be "a bridge to a much greener future" and promised that new guidance "will protect Britain's great national parks and outstanding landscapes."
But in his next sentence he made it clear that this would be achieved by "building on the existing rules that ensure operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced."
No hard rules - just weakly-worded guidance
This relaxed approach was confirmed by Communities Minister Lord Ahmad who stated:
"We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons.
"For this reason, I am today making clear our approach to planning for unconventional hydrocarbons in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites. Proposals for such development must recognise the importance of these sites."
So again - no hard planning rules to revent fracking of National Parks, AONBs or even UNESCO designated World Heritage sites - just planning guidance that propective developers must "recognise their importance".
Under Section 116 of Planning Practice Guidance, planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas "except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest."
Applicants would need to demonstrate "the need for the development", "the cost of, and scope for" alternatives, and "any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated."
Applicants will be able to appeal against any local authority planning refusal and the final decision will be made by the Communities Secretary - currently the notoriously pro-fracking Eric Pickles.
'Exceptional circumstances' - like exceptionally big gas finds?
Speaking on the BBC's Today programme this morning, Hancock made it clear that while unspecifed "exceptional circumstances" would need to apply, there was no problem with the principle of fracking in National Parks:
" ... for decades there already has been exploration for conventional oil in national parks and it's been done in a way that has not caused great controversy. And where it's being done in a reasonable way without an impact on the local environment, then we don't want to put a stop to something that's already happening that is happening uncontroversially."
As for World Heritage Sites (such as Stonehenge, Bath, the Dorset and Devon coast, Blenheim palace and Hadrian's Wall), even where "a proposed development for unconventional hydrocarbons would lead to substantial harm to or loss of a World Heritage Site" there is still no hard ban on development for oil and gas.
Mineral planning authorities could still provide planning consent if "wholly exceptional circumstances apply". Under Section 133 of the Planning Guidance, developers would merely need to demonstrate that "the substantial harm or loss is necessary to achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh that harm or loss."
The big question, says RSPB's Harry Huyton, "is why Government didn't just exclude fracking from these areas. Instead they have said it will still be allowed in 'exceptional' circumstances. As far as I can see no one can really tell what 'exceptional' actually means until someone tests it and applies anyway."
Wildlife sites and aquifers - no specific protection
But the position is far worse for wildlife sites - such as local nature reserves, National Nature Reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas, Ramsar Convention wetlands or Environmentally Sensitive Areas - which are to receive no specific protection at all.
In this regard the Government may be heading for a fight with international bodies reponsible for applying wildlife protection rules. The UK has clear legal obligations to protect wildlife under the EU's Habitats & Species Directive which could render oil and gas development on wildlife sites illegal under EU law.
And UNESCO, the UN body responsible for World Heritage designations, is firmly opposed to oil and gas development on its sites. As World Heritage Centre Director Kishore Rao said at the UNESCO meeting in June 2013:
"The World Heritage Committee has always taken a very clear position that oil and mining exploration and exploitation are incompatible with the World Heritage status of natural sites on the World Heritage List."
And although 95% the UK's drinking water aquifers are underlain by frackable rock, and could be polluted by leakage of liquid waste from oil and gas wells, no planning measures were announced to protect even the most important 'principal aquifers' from fracking activity.
Greenpeace Petition: Stop Cameron's fracking plan.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
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