Licences for fracking encroach on some of the most environmentally protected areas in England, including national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
As the government lifted the ban on drilling for shale gas, the Guardian analysed where drilling might take place in months and years to come.
There are 151 petroleum exploration and development licences already granted that would allow companies to pursue fracking. They stretch from Surrey and Sussex, to Somerset, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Key protected areas in England are either overlapped by the exploration permits or adjacent to them. Nearly half the licences granted are in Yorkshire, with some in parts of the North York Moors national park, including in Rishi Sunak’s constituency of Richmond.
In the Peak District, exploration permits have been granted adjacent to the national park. Other licences overlap some of the most environmentally protected zones in Europe, formerly known as Natura 2000, which are designed to protect the most threatened species and habitats. These include fracking licences overlapping the Peak District Moors, an environmental special protection area (SPA), and the South Pennine Moors, a special area of conservation (SAC).
Some exploration licences overlap parts of the South Downs national park and licences to drill for shale gas cover areas of outstanding natural beauty, including blocks partly overlapping the Lincolnshire Wolds and the Quantock Hills, where oak woodlands are also specially protected areas. Fracking permits also cover highly protected wetlands in England known as Ramsar sites.
Before the moratorium on fracking, which was introduced in 2019 after new research raised fresh fears about earthquakes, the protections from drilling in environmentally sensitive areas were opaque. There was no outright ban on drilling in protected areas like national parks or sites of special scientific interest. The rules allowed fracking 1,200 metres below national parks and SSSIs as long as the drilling took place from outside their boundaries. This was despite an earlier promise of an outright ban on the controversial technique for extracting shale gas in such areas.
Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at the countryside charity CPRE, said: “To put the jewels in the crown of the English landscape at risk of collateral damage from fracking adds insult to injury. It’s particularly craven in light of the government’s previous commitment to improve our natural environment and encourage more of us to visit the countryside.”
Environmental concerns over fracking include earthquake risk, increased air pollution and potential contamination of groundwater. Friends of the Earth said there were climate change impacts from the release of carbon dioxide when shale gas is burned, and of methane, a gas 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Over six days in January 2019 at the Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire, researchers at Manchester University found that 4.2 tonnes of methane was released, equivalent to 142 transatlantic flights.
All of the 151 licences granted to a string of companies could be used for fracking exploration, but currently 47 are specifically for the purposes of drilling for shale gas, according to figures from the North Sea Transition Authority.
Ineos Group and Cuadrilla Resources Ltd are two of the biggest players in the shale gas industry, and are likely to push ahead fastest. Until the moratorium, Cuadrilla fracked two wells at Preston New Road, but had to halt operations after a series of earthquakes.
On Thursday the founder of fracking firm Cuadrilla, who drilled the first modern wells in the UK, told the Guardian that fracking in the UK would be impossible at a meaningful scale and that the government’s support for it was merely “a political gesture”.
Ineos’s fracking permits include blocks that cover parts of the North York Moors. South Western Energy Ltd has licensed areas encroaching on the Quantock Hills and Mendip Hills in Somerset, both designated areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Rachael Bice, CEO of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, said fracking’s wide environmental impacts and negative effect on action to counteract climate change meant it should not be revived.
“In addition to habitat loss, fragmentation and disturbance, fracking will require large amounts of water – a resource Yorkshire cannot spare or risk contaminating, especially as we start to see increased chances of drought because of our changing climate,” she said.
Liz Truss, the prime minister, has indicated that fracking will go ahead only with local support. But campaigners are gearing up for a fight. Frack Off said 10m acres of the UK under licence could now see the most significant fracking assault to date.
“Full-scale fracking in these areas would mean the drilling of many thousands of wells, at densities of eight wells per sq mile or more, plus other fracking infrastructure like pipelines, compressor stations, processing plants and waste disposal facilities carving up the countryside,” the group said.
Fracking firms are lobbying for the drilling to be designated as a nationally strategic infrastructure project (NSIP), which would leapfrog local planning authorities. They are also lobbying for weaker earthquake regulations; current rules say fracking must be suspended for 18 hours if a tremor over 0.5 magnitude is detected.
But Fyans warned the government against overriding local democracy. “Fracking has no social licence to operate anywhere, regardless of landscape or biodiversity value, and it won’t get community consent,” he said. “That’s why there’s a real fear that planning rules will be downgraded to enable the government to force through an environmentally ruinous policy against the wishes of rural communities.”
Charles McAllister, policy manager at the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, dismissed environmental concerns about fracking. “The environmental arguments don’t stand up … The industry stands ready to get to work again creating a reliable domestic supply of much-needed natural gas.”
Ineos said the government must treat fracking as a national infrastructure priority. “We look forward to working constructively with government to deliver timely shale gas production in the national interest, as well as working closely with local communities to ensure they share in the benefits of domestic shale gas development.”
Cuadrilla did not want to comment while South Western Energy Ltd was unavailable.