Allowing poorly-regulated fracking in the south east’s protected countryside and national parks could cause water pollution and harm wildlife, according to a new report by the UK’s leading wildlife organisation and experts.
The south east has a number of protected areas licensed for fracking, according to a report entitled ‘Are We Fit To Frack?’, released today (Thursday) by the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the National Trust, the Angling Trust, the Salmon & Trout Association, and the Wildlife Trusts.
The campaigning bodies are calling for all protected wildlife areas, nature reserves and national parks to be frack-free zones.
They also want full environmental assessments to be carried out for each drilling proposal, and for the shale gas industry to pay the costs of its regulation and any pollution clean-ups.
The report claims a lack of regulation around shale gas exploitation which could cause serious impacts for threatened species including pink footed geese, nightjars, salmon and barbastelle bats.
It also raises serious concerns about the impact of drilling and water contamination on some of our most precious natural habitats such as chalk streams.
It says these clear waterways are known to anglers and wildlife-lovers as England’s coral reefs – 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams are found here.
Martin Harper, RSPB conservation director, said: “The Prime Minister has been a great advocate for the shale gas industry. He has said we have the strongest environmental controls in this country and nothing will go ahead if there are environmental dangers.
“Our report puts a spotlight on these risks and reinforces the growing concern about the impact fracking could have on our countryside and wildlife.
“We argue that more needs to be done to ensure fracking rules are fit for purpose.”
The report contains 10 recommendations for making fracking safer.
The RSPB south east conservation officer Alison Giacomelli said: “We would back extraction exclusion zones covering the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) Special Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI), and the National Parks such as the South Downs.
“The effects of fracking in sensitive areas on wildlife and the risks of water pollution are such that we would recommend those areas are avoided altogether for exploration.”
Celtique Energie wants to explore for oil and gas at Fernhurst in the South Downs National Park while the High Weald includes Balcombe where Cuadrilla is exploring, although it now says it will not need to frack.
London is also at risk, according to the report, because of areas licensed for fracking which, if developed could put pressure on public water supplies and compromise water quality.
The RSPB says some targetted sites are home to internationally important populations of nightjars and are SSSIs. It claims chemicals used in the exploration process could cause pollution of ground and surface water which would affect wildlife and drinking water quality.
“The High Weald is a protected landscape which has been licensed for fracking and it is home to internationally important population of nightjars, which are vulnerable to disturbance,” Alison said.
“These areas are legally-protected because of their special landscape and wildlife, so it is contradictory to allow fracking which potentially affects the countryside and the important species living there.”
The fracking report is supported by a cross-party group of MPs including Zac Goldsmith, Alan Whitehead and Tessa Munt.
Its recommendations are based on a technical evidence report which has been peer reviewed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Simon Pryor, National Trust natural environment director, said: “The debate on fracking needs to be evidence based.
“The evidence from this detailed research clearly reveals that the regulation of shale gas needs to be improved if it’s to offer adequate protection for sensitive environments.
“Whilst the Government is keen to see rapid roll out of fracking, there’s a real danger that the regulatory system simply isn’t keeping pace.
“The Government should rule out fracking in the most sensitive areas and ensure that the regulations offer sufficient protection to our treasured natural and historic environment.”
Paul Wilkinson, head of living landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said: “The Government’s dash for shale gas must not run ahead of our ability to effectively regulate, minimise or eliminate the serious risks fracking poses.
“This report clearly identifies a range of deficiencies which mean we’re not currently fit to frack without unacceptable risks to wildlife, special places and local communities across the country.”
Martin Spray, chief executive of WWT, said: “A single frack can use more water than 1,000 people use in a year and if it goes wrong it could contaminate drinking water and ruin wetland habitats.
“That’s a big burden on communities and it’s a risk we want managed. Today’s report clearly sets out the safeguards that need to be in place before this relatively new industry can operate in our countryside with a degree of safety.”
Martin Salter, national campaigns coordinator for the Angling Trust said: “A poor fracking operation has the potential to pollute groundwater supplies and to cause damage to fragile ecosystems in our chalk streams and other rivers.
“That is why we need the strongest possible regulatory framework, funded from the profits of the industry rather than from taxpayers’ pockets.”
Janina Gray, Salmon & Trout Association head of science, said: “The water use of the UK shale gas industry could exacerbate pressure on rivers and wetlands, particularly on sensitive water bodies and those already suffering from over-abstraction, such as chalk streams, and this adds yet further pressure on declining fish populations - the Atlantic salmon being a prime example.
“This, coupled with the risk of water pollution – including groundwater contamination – could, if not correctly managed, be significant - possibly irreversible.
“Action must be taken now to ensure all necessary environmental protection and regulatory frameworks are in place before extraction goes ahead.”