Fracking in National Parks

On 26 January, MPs voted down a proposal to ban fracking in the UK after the Government conceded to Labour party demands for additional controls to be included in the Infrastructure Bill.  Earlier this week, in the House of Lords, the Labour amendments were modified, and the Bill gained Royal Assent.  One of the changes reversed a ban on fracking in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – which, although proving unpopular with shale gas opponents, is a sensible change.


A blanket ban on fracking in National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was a fundamentally flawed concept.  In essence, the notion of such a ban raised a legitimate question: “If it can’t be done safely there, why should we accept it can be done safely elsewhere?”

But it was never the safety of fracking that was at the root of this proposed ban: it was a genuine concern for the landscape and amenity value of these areas, which attract thousands of visitors every year.   People were concerned that construction traffic, the sight of drilling rigs and the potential for noise, would upset the character of the countryside.

To find out whether these concerns are valid or not, we simply need to look for evidence of existing industrial activities being conducted in National Parks and AONB.


Test drilling in the North Pennines

In the last two years, the UK subsidiary of Canadian mining company Minco plc has drilled a total of thirty 500 metre deep boreholes in the North Pennines between Allenheads, near Stanhope, and Nenthead in Cumbria. In 2013, the area celebrated 25 years as an AONB, and yet the company has been able to quietly get on with its search for zinc deposits.

Speaking in 2013, Chris Woodley-Stewart, director of the North Pennines AONB Partnership, said: “We are aware of the current test drilling in relation to potential zinc mining in the Nenthead and Coalcleugh area.

“At this stage it is simply a temporary presence on the moors which will determine whether or not the geological conditions are right for zinc mining here. We wouldn’t want to second-guess the nature and scale of any development that might perhaps result from it.”

John Riddle, chairman of the Northumberland National Park Authority, said: “Historically the North Pennines has been a mining area and there are clearly job opportunities here. However, the AONB and landscape issues would have to be looked at very closely.”

In an update in January 2015, Minco plc said that its exploratory work was very encouraging and that, if it were to progress to mining the deposits, it expected it could create 500 jobs in the area and recover over 1 million tonnes a year of zinc ore.

If the exploratory drilling of thirty boreholes can take place mostly unnoticed in an AONB like this one, why can’t drilling for onshore oil and gas be accommodated just as sensitively?


Drilling under, not in

The clear advantage offered by shale gas exploration, compared with exploring for zinc deposits in the North Pennines, is the use of deep horizontal drilling.

Essentially, the drilling and associated construction activities can be located outside National Parks and AONB, so as not to interfere with visual amenity for instance, but still enabling the search for hydrocarbons trapped in the rocks beneath them.

This is exactly what the changes to the Infrastructure Bill have achieved.

Western Europe’s largest onshore oil field at Wytch Farm in Dorset provides another example of how drilling for hydrocarbons can take place in sensitive areas.  It is located within an AONB, on a Heritage Coast, in a Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area, Ramsar site and Site of Special Scientific Interest – and yet has been able to operate there with minimal impact, partly through the use of extended reach horizontal drilling.


Deciding where not to drill and frack should be about risk

The imposition of arbitrary bans on where development can and can’t take place is often counter-productive and risks introducing unintended consequences.

Instead, our tried and tested risk-based approach to planning and permitting should win out.

If, after careful consideration, a particular location is deemed unsuitable then it should be ruled out.

But if the very detailed Environmental Impact Assessments that shale gas operators produce determine that development can proceed, and planning officers agree, then there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t go ahead – even if that means drilling under a National Park or AONB.

So despite concerns in some quarters, allowing shale gas drilling and fracking under National Parks and AONB actually strikes a sensible balance.