28 Jul 2014

Fracking to protect beauty spots – or Tory marginals?

News Correspondent

The government’s decision to allow oil and gas exploration companies to bid for licenses for fracking raises environmental questions and concern for the future of Britain’s national parks.

The risk to Britain’s landscapes has been strongly refuted by the Energy Minister, Matt Hancock, who said fracking permission in national parks and “outstanding landscapes” would only be granted in “exceptional circumstances”.

He said: “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.”

Although today’s plans are seen as a step towards wide-scale exploration of shale gas on British shores, a license does not mean that an operator can immediately start drilling. Companies will also require planning permission from the necessary regional or local authority, permits and safety checks.

However, environmental groups have queried the sheer scale of licenses issued, which extends across half of the UK and include 10 of the UK’s 13 national parks.Greenpeace says that maps from the British Geological Survey show half of the major water aquifers of England and Wales overlap with shale reserves. A recent study from the US has found that fracking may have been responsible for leaking methane gas into drinking water in Pennsylvania.

A further issue is the significant disparity in licensed areas. According to the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s map of onshore licensed areas, almost 60 sites across England, Wales and Scotland have been allocated. Nearly three in five of all licenses were for sites in the north (17) or the Midlands (17). Only 17 per cent of licenses were granted to sites in south England, which accounts for almost one in six of all sites.

North Yorkshire (four sites), Nottinghamshire (nine), Derbyshire (six), Lincolnshire (seven) and Hampshire (six) in the south had the highest numbers of licensed sites.

The higher number of licensed areas in the north and Midlands may also fuel fears of a political bias against the north, with the Conservative party trying to consolidate support in its southern England heartlands ahead of next year’s general elections.

Former Conservative minister Nick Herbert campaigned against exploration for shale oil near Wisborough Green, a village in West Sussex. Last week, West Sussex County Council’s planning committee rejected the application by energy company Celtique Energie.

Last year, Lord Howell the Tory peer and father-in-law of George Osborne called for fracking to be concentrated in the “desolate” north east.