Delaying vital decisions on shale gas development until after the general election doesn’t help supporters or opponents of fracking.
The Infrastructure Act finally gained Royal Assent in Parliament last week, paving the way not only for more road building through a number of highways measures, but also setting out the rules of engagement that will allow shale development to begin in earnest.
For example, one House of Lords amendment removes the need for developers to carry out “Environmental Impact Assessments” and replaces it with the need for local planning authorities to simply make sure the they have considered the environmental impact of schemes when granting planning permission.
I find it difficult to believe developers will be celebrating such muddied legislation
Environmental campaigners argue that this and several other measures create legal loopholes that will make it much easier for shale gas development to go ahead.
However, I find it difficult to believe developers will be celebrating such muddied legislation, much of which is now subject to further legislation to clarify many of the vague terms that have been used in the Infrastructure Act.
In particular, the definition of what constitutes a “protected area” in which shale gas development cannot take place now looks set to be delivered after the general election.
The Infrastructure Act contains no specific references to National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). Instead it simply says that hydraulic fracturing cannot take place in “protected areas”, and that it is up to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to determine what constitutes a protected area.
This definition must be delivered by 31st July, several months after May’s general election.
In defending the need for further work to establish the definition of a protected area, energy minister Amber Rudd told the House of Commons that the “size and dispersion” of AONBs and National Parks meant that “it might not be practical to guarantee that fracking will not take place under them in all cases without unduly constraining the industry”.
Rudd, and environmental campaigners, clearly think the Government is helping the shale gas industry by delaying its definition of protected areas.
However, it is precisely AONBs and National Parks’ “size and dispersion” that means it is vital that industry and local planning authorities are given clarity on their status as soon as possible.
Instead the government has chosen to kick the issue into the long grass until after the general election, which helps nobody.