‘Legal and environmental folly’: Is a backlash already brewing over the government’s fracking and deregulation drive?

The government has managed to anger both green campaigners and its own MPs, after today signalling its willingness to row back on manifesto pledges by lifting the moratorium to fracking and confirming new plans that could result in environmental regulations being diluted.

As touted by Lis Truss during her successful bid to become Prime Minister over the summer, the government earlier today confirmed plans to revoke the effective ban on shale gas activities in England, before this afternoon introducing a new bill to the House of Commons that could remove, pare back or reform hundreds of environmental protection laws derived from the EU.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill – also known as the Brexit Freedoms Bill – is designed to strike the remaining EU laws from the UK’s statute book by 2023, which environmental groups have warned could impact as many as 570 retained laws that come under the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

These include rules for air quality, marine protection, rivers and streams, as well as legislation designed to protect wildlife habitats and threatened species from unsustainable development.

The Bill would abolish the “special status” of retained EU in the UK statute book on 31 December 2023 and establish a “sunset date” by which all legacy EU laws must be either repealed or assimilated, which the government said would reinstate domestic law as the highest form of law on the UK statute book.

In addition, the government is also expected to restrict the authority of the EU-derived Habitats Directive across 40 new UK “investment zones” that Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng is set to unveil in his mini-Budget tomorrow morning.

It altogether forms part of the government’s drive to cut back on EU red tape and “create regulations tailor made to the UK’s own need” in a bid to try and spur growth and innovation. 

This week hundreds of leading businesses called on the government to undertake a more interventionist approach to governing characterised by clearer, robust policies and regulations in order to drive forward the UK’s net zero and nature protection agenda. 

But Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg argued revoking EU law was a necessity now the UK has left the trading bloc. “Now that the UK has regained its independence, we have a fantastic opportunity to do away with outdated and burdensome EU laws, and to bring forward our own regulations that are tailor-made to our country’s needs,” he said today. “The Brexit Freedoms Bill will remove needless bureaucracy that prevents businesses from investing and innovating in the UK, cementing our position as a world class place to start and grow a business.”

The Bill has environmental campaigners extremely worried, however. They fear the revocation of EU-era law could harm the UK’s air, water, biodiversity and climate and create further bureaucratic burdens for already-stretched civil servants. 

Wildlife and Countryside Link chief executive Dr Richard Benwell said scrapping the body of EU-retailed environmental law would be a “legal and environmental folly”, arguing that re-writing the laws would be “a waste of time and public money”.

“Meddling with bedrock environmental laws like the Habitats Regulations will create doubt, uncertainty and instability for businesses at a time when they need stability the most,” he said. “It would also jeopardise the government’s central green promises of hitting net zero and halting the decline of nature by 2030.”

On the mooted plans to establish ‘investment zones’, Benwell added: “If they unshackle unsustainable development and throw environmental rules aside, new investment zones will harm wildlife, communities and business alike.”

He also raised concerns about that ripping up the UK’s environmental rulebook could hinder the UK’s ability to advocate for a strong global treaty for nature at the upcoming COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal later this year.

“The government has talked the talk on the international stage about restoring nature and curbing climate change,” Benwell said. “If it weakens protection for nature at home the government could set back global green efforts as well as harming nature at home.”

Green Alliance executive director Shaun Spiers echoed Benwell’s concerns, arguing that the Bill was “seriously bad news for anyone who cares about nature or wants a high-standards UK”.

And Greener UK senior fellow Ruth Chambers said the Bill “could derail Environment Act pledges & put public health at risk”, highlighting concerns that the “scramble to deregulate” could derail a host of environmental priorities and scrap protections without sufficient public scrutiny, consultation, and Parliamentary discussion time.

But it wasn’t just environmental campaigners who were angered by the government’s announcements today. The Brexit Freedoms Bill was announced just hours after the government confirmed it still intends to move ahead with its plan to lift the moratorium on fracking in the UK while also launching a new licensing round for offshore oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.

The move to unlock a dash for shale gas comes despite a government-commissioned report published today warning there remain significant challenges around safety and forecasting fracking-induced earthquakes, and that it is still impossible to identify sites best suited to host such earthquakes.

Critics of fracking have repeatedly pointed out that lifting the moratorium will likely do very little to bring down soaring energy bills in the UK, particularly when far cheaper, greener and quicker to scale forms of energy from wind, solar and other renewable sources are available. Surveys also point to low levels of public support for shale gas exploration, amid fears of it leading to industrialisation of the countryside and potential earthquakes. 

In a debate in the House of Commons today, Rees-Mogg defended his support for fracking, but further risked the ire of campaigners, the public and some of his Conservative Party colleagues by controversially insinuating without citing evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been bankrolling anti-fracking sentiment in the UK. “I am well aware that there have been objections to fracking, but I would also note that there have been stories, widely reported, that some of the opposition to fracking has been funded by Mr Putin’s regime,” he said.

Rees-Mogg’s comments elicited an immediate backlash from MPs and campaigners. Labour’s Shadow Climate and Net Zero Secretary Ed Miliband describing the claim as “an absolutely outrageous slur” and “shameful and disgraceful”.

Others, meanwhile, called on the Business Secretary to withdraw and apologise for his comments. John Hobson from the Frack Free Lancashire group said: “On behalf of all UK anti-fracking groups, Frack Free Lancashire deplore the unparliamentary nature of this defamatory accusation and call upon the Speaker of the House to order Mr Rees-Mogg to either provide evidence to support his claim or to apologise to the house.”

Rees-Mogg’s comments also drew ire from the ranks of his own Party, which contains a large number of MPs who have made clear their opposition to fracking in the UK. Earlier this week, for example, Lee Rowley was appointed a junior government Housing and Planning Minister – a Tory MP who has campaigned against fracking place in his Derbyshire constituency as well as setting out his support for maintaining the moratorium on shale gas exploration.

Conservative MP Sir Greg Knight – himself a former government Energy Minister – was among those to criticise the government’s plans for fracking in the House of Commons this afternoon. “Is it not the case that forecasting the occurrence of seismic events as a result of fracking remains a challenge to the experts?” he said. “Is it not therefore creating a risk of an unknown quantity to pursue shale gas exploration at the present time? Is he aware that the safety of the public is not a currency in which some of us choose to speculate?”

Under pressure from his fellow Conservative MPs to set out how exactly how the government intends to establish local consent for fracking projects, Rees-Mogg had today insisted that companies interested in drilling for shale gas would have to “develop packages” that made their intervention “attractive to local communities”.

But Tory MP Mark Fletcher said the local consent plans “don’t seem to wash”. “It seems to come back to communities being bought off rather than having a vote,” he said. “So, can the Secretary of State confirm once and for all if local residents across Bolsover, who are concerned about fracking, will get a vote to object to these schemes locally?”

Less than a fortnight since moving into Downing Street, Liz Truss has already made made clear she is prepared to be unpopular with her government’s policies in order to drive forward her high growth, low tax and low regulation agenda. Clearly, given the potential backlash she is risking from opening up England to fracking and ditching environmental and animal welfare protections, it is a gamble the PM is already embarking on. 


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