Will National Parks, groundwater and SSSIs be protected from fracking?

The government has announced draft regulations on fracking leaving it unclear what will – and won’t – be off limits to the shale gas industry.

The rules appear to suggest fracking will be allowed under National Parks and other conservation and national beauty sites – so long as it involves drilling sideways from outside the park. When it comes to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and groundwater protection zones the rules are muddier still.

The new rules will say fracking can only take place 1,200 metres below groundwater zones, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, the Broads and World Heritage Sites, according to a DECC statement.

The government had previously said it would impose an ‘outright ban’ on fracking in National Parks and SSSIs – but seems to have sidestepped this by proposing to put rigs outside the perimeters of the areas and drill sideways into fissures deep under the parks.

There are concerns that conservation sites could become surrounded by fracking rigs. And, it looks like some drilling (for samples) could be allowed in a loophole to the regulations.

But there’s no mention in the list of SSSIs – Sites of Special Scientific Interest, conservation areas of which there are around 4,000 in the UK, protecting 8% of the country. The lack of SSSIs in the announcement could mean that fracking won’t be allowed sideways under SSSIs from outside their bounds – or that it will be allowed from the surface of them.

(Update: It now looks as though SSSIs can be fracked from the surface. A DECC spokesperson told the Guardian: “We consider that their [SSSI’s] protections are adequate under the planning system. Developments won’t normally be permitted if they were going to have an adverse impact on a SSSI. The number of them would have an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry.”)

It’s also not clear to what extent fracking will be allowed under groundwater zones. Labour wanted to include all three groundwater zones defined by the Environment Agency in their version of the regulations, but now we don’t know whether the narrowest definition ( zone 1) will be used or not.

“Water is not normally found below 400m,” DECC simply says in its announcement.

Large numbers of Labour and Tory seats that are covered in fracking exploration blocks are also covered in groundwater protection zones, including swathes of the Tory heartlands. If the narrowest definition is used that would significantly reduce the restrictions on fracking.

DECC says more details on the draft regulations will be available soon. DECC has not yet responded to Unearthed’s request for comment.

But details obtained by The Telegraph’s energy editor Emily Gosden indicate the government may also be attempting to manipulate the definition of fracking.

Conventional oil wells can be (and is) drilled in National Parks.

DECC stated: “Ministers also set out their clear commitment to ensure that fracking cannot be conducted from wells that are drilled in the surface of National Parks and other protected areas in such a way as to not impact on conventional drilling operations.”

Now the proposed areas protected from fracking are being published, the decision will go to a committee that has not yet been convened – but if there are objections to the new legislation, which is part of the Infrastructure Act, then there could be a vote in the Commons.

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