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House of Commons approves ban on hydraulic fracturing in National Parks, AONBs and SSSIs

The House of Commons has approved an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill which would ban hydraulic fracturing for hydrocarbons (commonly known as “fracking”) in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). 

The National Planning Practice Guidance on Planning for Hydrocarbon Extraction currently permits fracking in such designated areas in “exceptional circumstances.”

The new clause, which was introduced by the Government during the Bill’s report stage and third reading on 26th January 2015, also introduces a series of conditions which must be met before any fracking activity can take place including the baseline monitoring of emissions, environmental assessments and safeguards where drinking water aquifers could be at risk. It provides as follows: 

Hydraulic fracturing: necessary conditions 

Any hydraulic fracturing activity cannot take place: 

(a) unless an environmental impact assessment has been carried out;

(b) unless independent inspections are carried out of the integrity of wells used;

(c) unless monitoring has been undertaken on the site over the previous 12 month period

(d) unless site-by-site measurement, monitoring and public disclosure of existing and future fugitive emissions is carried out;

(e) in land which is located within the boundary of a groundwater source protection zone;

(f) within or under protected areas;

(g) in deep-level land at depths of less than 1,000 metres;

(h) unless planning authorities have considered the cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing activities in the local area;

(i) unless a provision is made for community benefit schemes to be provided by companies engaged in the extraction of gas and oil rock;

(j) unless residents in the affected area are notified on an individual basis;

(k) unless substances used are subject to approval by the Environment Agency;

(l) unless land is left in a condition required by the planning authority;

and

(m) unless water companies are consulted by the planning authority.”

MPs rejected further opposition amendments which would have removed the controversial clauses 39-44 of the Bill which provide for a new statutory right of access to deep-level land without landowner consent for the purposes of exploiting petroleum or deep geothermal energy (subject to certain notification and compensation requirements).

The Commons also voted against a proposed 30-month moratorium on all fracking activity, a measure which had been recommended by the all-party Commons Environmental Audit Committee in its report on the environmental risks of fracking published on 21st January 2015.

However, following the vote the Scottish Government announced on 28th January 2015 that a moratorium on granting consents for all unconventional oil and gas developments would be imposed in Scotland whilst further research and a public consultation is carried out.

This policy has been given effect in the planning decision making process through the Town and Country Planning (Notification of Applications) (Unconventional Oil and Gas (Scotland) Direction 2015 which can be found here

The Infrastructure Bill is scheduled to return to the House of Lords on 9th February 2015 when Peers will consider the Commons amendments before the legislation goes for Royal Assent.

The progress of the Bill can be viewed here.