Though not an outright ban, a new roadblock against fracking has been erected in Northern Ireland, giving new hope to groups pushing for climate-friendly policies across the UK and Europe.
Environmental Minister Mark Durkan on Monday released a Single Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) that will prohibit the controversial shale gas extraction method on the grounds that its climate impact is still not fully known.
"Publishing the SPPS unlocks development potential, supports job creation and will aid economic recovery but not at the expense of our planet, environment and people," Durkan said. "Significantly for the first time, no to fracking is actually enshrined in policy unless there is sufficient and robust evidence of its safety on all environmental impacts. I believe this is a sensible and reasonable approach."
The SPPS, which provides guidelines to regional councils on about 20 different policy areas—from infrastructure and planning to community development—implements a "town center first" approach to retail and business development.
Roisin Willmott, Royal Town Planning Institute’s director for Northern Ireland, praised the SPPS and its focus on environment and community building. "This is good news for our members and for Northern Ireland. The much anticipated SPPS will be a catalyst for positive change on the ground," Willmott said.
The plan was similarly well-received by environmental activists throughout the UK. Friends of the Earth Scotland's head of campaigns Mary Church said Monday, "Northern Ireland's vibrant and diverse anti-fracking campaign will be delighted with the formal adoption of this precautionary approach to fracking.... This presumption against the development of all unconventional fossil fuels is yet another blow to the industry in these islands."
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"Well done to our colleagues in Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland and all those who've fought this dirty, dangerous industry across the Irish Sea," Church said, adding that lawmakers in Scotland, who are having a similar debate over fracking safety, should pay close attention.
"Scotland's policitians should take note of this decision as they assess the threat from fracking and unconventional gas," Church said. "Unconventional gas is unsafe, unnecessary and opposed by local communities. The Scottish Government should focus instead on supporting the growth of clean, decentralised, renewable energy to help lead the fight against climate change."
Though Durkan's announcement was received as a welcome development, he also raised eyebrows among activists by saying the the policy could change if evidence emerged proving fracking was environmentally safe.
Durkan unveiled his SPPS after a year-long effort by activists with the Stop the Drill campaign in Belfast, who warned that a nearby oil extraction operation could be contaminating a reservoir supplying water to the area's households, schools, hospitals, and businesses. It is also the latest environmentally-focused policy change to come to Europe, after Durkan announced a ban on GMO crop cultivation just a week ago, following in the footsteps of Scotland and Germany.
*Note: This article has been updated to better reflect the nature of the new policy guidelines. The move is not an official ban on fracking in Northern Ireland.