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Fracking in the UK: Wildlife sites under threat, regulators at risk from cuts, while Cuadrilla appeals (updated)

Fracking remains near the top of the UK political agenda, with events in the last few weeks adding to the concerns we expressed in our briefing and report, launched on the 21st June. The government has U-turned on the protection of wildlife sites, and more cuts are on the horizon for the regulators. Meanwhile fracking company Cuadrilla has appealed against the decision by Lancashire County Council to refuse it permission to start fracking at two sites.

Update, 28th August: the Government is also increasing the centralisation of planning decisions, has awarded new licences, and is starting a consultation on exploration in more environmentally sensitive areas.

Fracking to be permitted in important wildlife sites, following government U-turn

One of the three “concerns for the future” that we raised in our fracking briefing was:

“A strong lobby from many parts of business for ‘better regulation’, which frequently means deregulation or at least regulatory delays. Such a lobby could lead to a government removing regulatory requirements.”

Within weeks of the publication of our report we are already seeing what could be the first signs of such deregulatory pressure, as reported by the Daily Telegraph:

“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)”.”

This change in policy, potentially permitting fracking in important wildlife sites around the country, was criticised by the RSPB:

Matt Williams, a policy officer at the RSPB, said: “The government has reneged on its commitment to rule out fracking in some of our most important wildlife sites. 

“Despite promising in January to exclude fracking from SSSIs, today’s announcement ignores any such commitment, leaving some of the UK’s most valuable wildlife sites exposed to risk from future fracking.”

UK Government preparing for cuts of 25-40% in departmental budgets

A second of the three ‘concerns for the future’ in our fracking briefing was concerns about:

“On-going cuts in regulatory authorities, such as the EA [Environment Agency] in England, including loss of staff and redeployment of staff towards other priorities such as flooding. This will reduce their capacity to identify failures and enforce licence conditions in important regulatory areas such as fracking.”

Now the Guardian has reported that George Osborne, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer:

has ordered government departments to plan ways to cut up to 40% from their budgets by 2019-20 in a bid to find an additional £20bn savings in public spending.

“Letters will be sent to the head of every department that does not have ringfenced funding, asking them to model two scenarios of 25% and 40% of real-terms savings by 2019-20”

The UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for funding the main environmental regulator for fracking, the EA, has already absorbed large budget cuts, and passed many of them on to the EA. It is very worrying that the government is now considering the impacts of a further, massive, 40% cut from this budget.

Cuadrilla appeals against refusal of planning permission

As we reported earlier, at the end of June Lancashire County Council denied an application from the fracking company Cuadrilla to drill wells at two sites. As was widely predicted, Cuadrilla has now appealed against this decision.

Update, 24th August: Centralisation of planning controls for fracking, and lots of new licences

Update, 1st October 2015