David Cameron, speaking after the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in 2014, said fracking "will be good for our country." The Prime Minister is determined the controversial technology—which involves shooting chemicals and water at high-pressure down deeply-drilled wells to release shale oil and gas—will become a centerpiece of Britain's self-sustaining energy policies. Blaming a "lack of understanding" on fears over fracking's impact on the environment, Cameron said concerns will be allayed once more wells are up and running.
So news that the UK government has recently issued 159 fracking licenses that cover 293 sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), comprising 1,000 square miles of land home to rare wildlife, makes sense—even if it's a U-turn on pre-election promises to protect SSSIs. How better to prove fracking's environmentally friendly credentials than to open the door for industrial extraction within beloved nature reserves?
However, the conservation groups, experts, and activists I spoke to said the move threatens protected habitats and is part of a wider policy to loosen regulation and oversight for energy companies.
Nine RSPB nature reserves are included within the licensed areas, including Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire, which is home to one of Europe's largest seabird colonies. The charity is concerned that fracking could result in chemical pollution, disturbances, and habitat loss.
RSPB conservation director Martin Harper said: "In February, Amber Rudd, Energy and Climate Secretary, specifically promised to ban fracking within all SSSIs, but this promise seems to have been forgotten. We simply don't understand why SSSIs, some of the UK's best and most sensitive wildlife sites and landscapes, aren't being offered full protection from fracking, when National Parks, World Heritage Sites, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are being excluded from fracking completely."
The Wildlife Trusts are also questioning the issue of the licenses, after discovering that 185 of their nature reserves could potentially be fracked.
"As a matter of urgency, The Wildlife Trusts call on the government to clarify that nationally and locally protected areas for wildlife will not be subject to impacts from fracking in or around these special places, which are important for local communities and wildlife alike," said Wildlife Trusts' head of living landscape, Paul Wilkinson. "There are 185 Wildlife Trust nature reserves in the proposed new licensing areas including places like Attenborough near Nottingham, a wetland nature reserve with an award-winning visitor center which has welcomed more than two million visitors in the past ten years."
The conservationists' worries are not misplaced, explained biochemist Dr. Michael Warhurst. The executive director of the Chem Trust pointed out that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was just one part of a much larger process. The digging of the wells, the removal, and storage of waste water, chemicals and fuels and the longterm management of exhausted wells all present risks. While fracking can cause small earthquakes and noise and air pollution, the most serious risk is from the large amounts of oil, waste water, and chemicals involved, all of which can contaminate the local environment.
"Evidence from the US, where fracking is widespread, shows spillage can cause a huge amount of damage to water courses," said Dr. Warhurst. "The problem with fracking is that you need to dig a lot of wells, and there's evidence that shows that quite a percentage of those wells will fail and produce leakage. It's a very big problem because the wildlife that could be damaged is potentially nationally important. There's the chance of spillage from the lorries that have to take the water away, as well as from storage facilities. Then at the end of a fracking well's life what's going to happen to it? In Scotland we've already seen examples of funds to restore open cast mining sites running out. Sometimes the industry is quite clever in that they only answer to the fracking process, which is a specific period of time. I think the point is that this is an industrial process."
READ ON MOTHERBOARD: Human Activity Is Causing Significantly More Earthquakes
Although a spokesperson from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) insisted that "planning guidance is clear that fracking shouldn't be permitted if it affects SSSIs," Dr. Warhurst and others remain concerned. In August the government announced new "fast track" rules that allow ministers to intervene in fracking bids delayed by local councils, following frustrations over holdups. The rules prompted Greenpeace's head of campaigns, Daisy Sands, to accuse the Tories of "a clear affront to local democracy."
Last week the Guardian revealed the government is also backing oil and gas companies—including Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron—who are lobbying EU leaders to drop proposals for increased fracking safety regulation. The measures would install provisions for "best available technologies and risk management procedures" (Brefs) to be used during fracking. UK government sources told the Guardian that Brefs would be "an unnecessary restriction on the UK oil and gas industry" and a cause of "unnecessary red tape."
Dr. Warhurst said that attempts to deregulate the fracking industry, coupled with the possibility of more austerity against an already depleted Environment Agency, will leave SSSIs under the threat of fracking even more at risk.
"The problem is that there is a very strong ideology at the moment, which says that regulation is something that's bad. Whereas it's regulation that protects the environment. It's regulation that reduces harm from pollution. But there's a very strong push against regulation. It's really problematic. It may lower some short term costs, but it's more likely to cause problems in the long run," he said.
The Chem Trust recommends an EU-wide moratorium on fracking that will suspend all activity until a strong legislative framework to mitigate its worst effects is in place. Scotland imposed a moratorium in January, preventing any fracking activity in that country, but a similar attempt in England was overwhelmingly defeated in Parliament.
Though David Cameron is, in his own words, "going all out for shale," and has the political power to implement his plans in England, there remains an active and determined public movement to quash them. Anti-fracking activists have built protest camps at proposed fracking sites across the country, as well as holding regular demonstrations and community meetings. The movement reflects a widely held unease over the process's effects on the climate and local environments.
Misha Wayford is one of those involved in the umbrella campaign organization Frack Off, which links a number of local protest groups throughout Britain.
"The government's ideological pursuit of fracking ignores the fact that this is a new and unprecedented industry in the UK. Fracking has real impacts on real places where real people and animals live," she said. "This is the reality of 'fast track fracking': cut corners, the erosion of existing regulations, and a broad brush stroke approach to public 'tick box' consultations. It is communities that are standing up to a deranged energy policy that pins its hopes on shale gas wells."
While only one site has been fracked in the UK so far, it's probably safe to assume, as the news spreads that fracking has now been OK'd to take place within English nature reserves, that community backlash is only set to increase.
Follow Ryan Fletcher on Twitter.