Environmental Audit Committee calls for Fracking Moratorium

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has called for a moratorium on fracking for shale gas on the grounds that it would be incompatible with the UK’s carbon reduction targets, and that considerable uncertainties remain about the risks posed to the wider environment. The EAC has also recommended that an outright ban is imposed on fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and ancient woodland. These recommendations form the primary conclusions of the Committee’s Inquiry into the Environmental Risks of Fracking, with the report of the inquiry released today to coincide with the debate in the House of Commons on the remaining stages of the Infrastructure Bill, which includes provisions to “streamline” access to onshore oil and gas reserves.

The report considers the risks of fracking both in terms of climate change and in the context of wider environmental pressures. On climate change, the Committee concludes that shale gas cannot be thought of as a low-carbon energy source, and therefore pressing ahead with large-scale investment in fracking would not be compatible with achieving the reductions the UK’s carbon emissions set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, especially given that large-scale production of shale gas would not be likely for another 10-15 years. The report goes on to outline a number of further environmental risks from fracking, namely: groundwater quality, waste, water supplies, air emissions and health, geological integrity, noise and disruption, and most pertinently for ecologists, habitats and biodiversity.

The report finds that fracking poses a number of risks to habitats and biodiversity: direct loss or fragmentation of habitat, noise and vibration, air and water contamination, light, and traffic associated with fracking operations. It is worth noting that this conclusion is based on just two submissions to the Committee’s enquiry, from the RSPB and the Woodland Trust, suggesting that more research is required to evaluate the possible impacts of fracking operations on the local natural environment. The Government’s current stance is that shale gas extraction would only be permitted in National Parks, AONBs or World Heritage Sites in “exceptional circumstances” where public benefit can be demonstrated, and that these sites and others are amply protected by the existing planning system. However in order to ensure that the most valuable sites for biodiversity are protected, the EAC recommends strengthening and extending this protection so that fracking is completely prohibited in protected areas including all National Parks, AONBs, SSSIs and ancient woodland, as well as any land functionally linked to these areas.

The report has been released on the day that MPs will debate fracking as part of the report stage and third reading of the Infrastructure Bill, a major package of legislation that contains a number of elements of importance for biodiversity and environmental protection. As such, a group of MPs on the EAC have put forward an amendment to the Bill that would place a moratorium on fracking, as well as removing the provision within the Bill for the government to “maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum”. A further group of MPs have tabled an amendment to take forward the recommendation to explicitly ban fracking from the protected areas outline above. The Labour Party has also suggested that there are thirteen “necessary conditions” that must be met before fracking should go ahead.

Shale gas extraction is an emotive topic, with today seeing anti-fracking demonstrations outside Parliament, and the leaking of a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Cabinet colleagues demanding “rapid progress” on the issue. As such, the role of independent scientific evidence in informing debate and decision-making is essential, and the EAC has been criticised by some scientists for putting the “views of anti-fracking groups ahead of evidence-based scientific studies”. A recent review of the evidence by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that the environmental risks of fracking can be managed effectively with appropriate regulation, yet this report did not consider impacts on climate change nor biodiversity. While a recent study has pointed out the potentially serious impacts on biodiversity of high density shale gas extraction in the Eastern USA, it is clear that further research is required to examine the potential effects in the UK context.