New shale gas drilling licences covering 2,700 square kilometers of British countryside, large parts of which are protected as ecologically sensitive, are about to be issued by the Oil and Gas Authority. The West Country, the Isle of Wight and parts of the fragile Jurassic Coast of Dorset are amongst the protected areas where licences for fracking will be offered.
According to British PM David Cameron, his government is “going all out for shale”, which will offer the country’s strained economy “more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security”. According however to reports published by civil society groups, such as Friends of the Earth, the environmental, social and economic costs of hydraulic fracturing far outweigh its benefits to the oil giants now pressing for fast track licences.
On August 18th, the Oil & Gas Authority launched a consultation on its strategic plan-level Habitats Regulation Assessment of the licence blocks, a fast-track procedure which will cover the need for site-specific EIAs. The assessment checks whether the activities will have any “likely significant effects” (LSEs) on the habitats of the licence block, in which case a further detailed appropriate assessment will be undertaken, in accordance with art. 6.3 of the European Union’s Habitats Directive. Of the 159 blocks assessed for likely significant impacts, the authority concluded that 27 will have no LSEs, whereas 132 were subjected to a further appropriate assessment.
Local and international environmental groups are alarmed by the prospect of hydraulic fracturing operations for shale gas taking place within some of the country’s most treasured habitats and landscapes. As stated by Greenpeace’s head campaigner for energy Daisy Sands: “This is the starting gun on the fight for the future of our countryside. Hundreds of battles will spring up to defend our rural landscapes from the pollution, noise and drilling rigs that come with fracking. It seems clear that the government is responding to the vigorous lobbying from the fracking companies by ignoring both the economic and environmental evidence that clean, renewable energy is a far better bet for investment and the planet.”
According to Friends of the Earth, “new fracking rules interfere with local democracy”, as “local councils will no longer be able to protect their communities from dirty, dangerous fracking”.
Earlier in 2015, a broad alliance of environmental groups including WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth delivered a 267,000 strong petition urging PM David Cameron to reconsider his strong support to fracking.