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Fracking u-turn 'recognises risks'

Government concessions on fracking show the "monolithic consensus" on the issue is crumbling, Greenpeace has claimed.

In the Commons, Energy Minister Amber Rudd conceded shale gas extraction would now be banned in national parks and other protected areas, while ministers also accepted a Labour amendment to the Infrastructure Bill setting "necessary conditions" for fracking to take place.

The Government's previous draft would have allowed operators access to national parks in exceptional circumstances.

The concessions allowed the Government to easily defeat calls for a moratorium on the controversial process, seeing off a report stage amendment by a majority of more than 250.

Greenpeace UK energy and climate campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: "These concessions are a sign that the monolithic consensus of fracking is finally crumbling under the weight of mounting evidence that this industry is bad for the environment and for the climate.

"Banning fracking from national parks and sensitive water protection areas, though basic common sense, is a clear step forward in recognising the risks of this industry.

"Now that ministers have implicitly recognised that shale drilling is too risky for our nature reserves, they'll have a tough job trying to explain why that isn't the case across the country."

A Fit to Frack spokesman added: "These amendments to the Infrastructure Bill will help safeguard our nation's wildlife, habitats and landscapes from the environmental risks associated with fracking, but there is still work to be done to ensure a robust regulatory system is established to offer protection for places still vulnerable to this largely untested technology."

Following the Commons debate, a Government spokesman said fracking offered the chance of a "whole new British industry".

The spokesman said: "The Government has already built a robust regulatory system for the development of the shale industry in the UK.

"Today we are committing to formalise the safeguards, including a new ban on fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

"Successfully extracting shale gas out of the ground can create a whole new British industry, creating jobs, and make us less reliant on imports from abroad, but we recognise the need for a measured approach for this nascent industry."

Labour welcomed the Government concessions. After the vote, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint said it had been a "huge u-turn" for ministers to accept the Opposition amendment on conditions.

The Commons drama followed protests outside Parliament and the leaking of a letter revealing behind-the-scenes efforts to promote fracking.

Friends of the Earth hosted a rally outside Westminster hours ahead of the report stage debate on the Bill.

A leaked letter from Chancellor George Osborne, written last year, called on Cabinet colleagues to "make it a personal priority" to implement measures to help boost the shale industry.

He called for rapid progress on developing three or four "exemplar drilling sites" to prove the concept of safe shale gas exploration, contingency plans if Lancashire County Council turns down planning applications and a strategy to push fracking to the public.

The letter emerged as the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warned extensive production of unconventional shale gas, which is extracted through fracking, is not compatible with the UK's goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The committee also called for fracking to be "prohibited outright" in protected areas such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and ancient woodlands, and banned in all water source protection zones, which feed drinking water aquifers.

In a report published ahead of the final Commons debate on fracking legislation in the Infrastructure Bill, the EAC warned of an "extensive range of uncertainties" over hazards ranging from polluting groundwater and water supplies to noise and disruption.

There was also a lack of public acceptance of fracking, they said.

A decision is also due this week in Lancashire, one of the areas where shale is thought to be most abundant, on planning applications from shale company Cuadrilla for two new fracking exploration sites between Blackpool and Preston.

But Cuadrilla requested last week that the decision be deferred as it submitted "additional information", after planning officers for Lancashire County Council recommended the applications be turned down on noise pollution and traffic grounds.

The letter from the Chancellor revealed that he wanted colleagues to "respond to the asks from Cuadrilla" to reduce risks and delays to drilling the first well, and to fast-track planning appeals if the applications for shale exploration in Lancashire are refused.

Friends of the Earth Energy Campaigner Tony Bosworth, who obtained the leaked letter, said: "This letter shows Government and industry working hand-in-glove to try anything to make fracking happen.

"Councillors in Lancashire will be shocked that the Government is plotting with Cuadrilla how to make sure that they can frack in Lancashire even if their applications are rejected this week."

Responding to the EAC report, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said: " We disagree with the conclusion of this report. We have one of the most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas.

"UK shale development is compatible with our goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions and does not detract from our support for renewables; in fact it could support development of intermittent renewables."

Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to see the UK copy the US on fracking, with local communities benefiting from local business rates and employment.

He said: "I want to see unconventional gas properly exploited in our country. I think there are good reasons for doing this - we want to have greater energy security, we want to keep prices down, we also want to tackle climate change."

The US has experienced a major shale boom in recent years, but it has been dogged by controversy, with fears over health and environmental impacts leading to protests and some areas such as New York State banning fracking.

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