Ministers say it would be “impractical” to introduce a complete ban on fracking in Sites of Special Scientific Interest
Fracking will be allowed to take place in hundreds of precious wildlife sites after the Government abandoned its pledge of an “outright ban” on the practice in Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The Department of Energy and Climate Change said it had now decided it would be “impractical” to ban fracking in the sites, which are designated by law to protect rare species and habitats.
Ministers in January announced that they would introduce “an outright ban on fracking in National Parks, SSSI and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)”.
They had already watered that commitment down once by announcing the ban would apply only at surface level, with fracking allowed underneath the protected areas so long as drilling rigs were stationed just outside their boundaries.
But the Government also disclosed on Thursday a further weakening of the promised protections, confirming that the surface-level ban – which is yet to be introduced – would not apply to SSSI.
A DECC spokesman said: “SSSI already have strong protection under the existing planning and regulatory regime. As they are numerous and extremely widespread it would be impractical to completely rule out drilling in SSSI.
“However, the National Planning Policy Framework already makes clear that development should not normally be permitted if it is likely to have an adverse effect on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.”
Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, had previously said that the Government did not want to introduce rules that would “needlessly damage the potential development of the shale industry”.
Matt Williams, RSPB policy officer, said the Government had “reneged on its commitment to rule out fracking in some of our most important wildlife sites”, leaving “some the UK’s most valuable wildlife sites exposed to risk from future fracking”.
Ministers are currently in the process of awarding new exploration licences, giving access rights to energy companies to drill for shale oil and gas.
Analysis by the RSPB suggests that some 3,600 sites, covering six per cent of the UK land ministers are currently making available fracking companies, are SSSI.
Although many of these may also be within National Parks or AONB, and therefore covered by the ban, hundreds of SSSI are still likely to be outside these protected areas.
A DECC source said that shale gas looked most accessible in the north west and Yorkshire, so “we’re not talking about every SSSI in England being affected”.
Mr Williams said the RSPB also remained concerned about fracking beneath protected areas, which “could see lots of fracking wells near them”.
“The pollution, noise and light disturbance from fracking wells doesn’t respect boundaries potentially putting wildlife at risk,” he said.
Caroline Flint, Labour’s shadow energy secretary, said: “The Government promised to protect SSSI but are now saying they will allow fracking inside them.
This latest U-turn is another example of the Tories failing to recognise genuine and legitimate public concern about shale gas extraction.”