Reversing Course, UK Opens National Parks to Fracking

A view of the South Downs National Park from Devil's Dyke in southern England. (Photo: Escowles/Wikimedia/cc)

Reversing Course, UK Opens National Parks to Fracking

Environmental groups say lawmakers' backpedaling could pave way for fracking near drinking water sources

Fracking will now be permitted in national parks, "areas of outstanding natural beauty," and potentially near drinking water sources, members of the UK Parliament said Wednesday, marking a reversal of course from the commitment it made just three weeks ago to pass a prohibition, and infuriating opponents of toxic drilling.

On January 26, the House of Commons agreed to an amendment banning toxic drilling in the aforementioned special areas. The prohibition--if implemented--would have halted drilling in 40 percent of England's shale areas, according to a study by the Guardian. But the new change allows for drilling in these areas as long as the drilling rigs themselves sit just outside of the areas.

The ban had already been criticized as falling short of an all-out halt to fracking from grassroots organizations, as well as parliament's own Environmental Audit Committee, which released a report in late January that warned the toxic drilling is not compatible with the country's "efforts to keep global temperature rise below two degrees."

But since committing to the prohibition, the government has backpedaled on this and other protections, prompting the accusation by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas that ministers are "doing the dirty work of fracking companies for them."

As the Campaign to Protect Rural England notes, "It was hoped that the Government, at the insistence of MPs from across the House, would reinstate strong protections."

However, statements made by energy and climate change minister Amber Rudd on Wednesday show that the Conservative government is not taking such a stand.

"In the case of areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks, given their size and dispersion, it might not be practical to guarantee that fracking will not take place under them in all cases without unduly constraining the industry," Rudd told Parliament.

Moreover, Rudd indicated that the definition of "protected areas" will be reexamined down the line, raising the possibility that water sources will not be shielded from fracking.

According to Richard Casson of Greenpeace UK, "What this means is that national parks and water sources won't be fully protected from fracking. So while Scotland and Wales have raised clear concerns about the health and environmental impact of fracking, in England it's full steam ahead with the dash to drill for shale gas and oil."

However, Casson says there is still hope. "We know that David Cameron wants to go all out for shale gas, but the Labour Party is far from decided," he writes, urging opponents of fracking to escalate pressure on lawmakers.

Friends of the Earth agrees. "All eyes will now be on the Labour Party," the organization declared in a statement released Thursday. "It committed to oppose fracking altogether if the Government didn't meet its conditions--including protecting all national parks and ground water source protection zones from fracking. 'All or nothing' were the words which Labour shadow minister Tom Greatrex used."

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