Fracking now subject to independent environmental impact studies

Exploration and hydraulic fracturing extraction activities for non-conventional hydrocarbons in the EU will now be subject to environmental impact studies. This results from the European Parliament voting to amend the existing Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (EIA)

Lead MEP Andrea Zanoni

 

Previously, the directive was limited in scope to natural gas projects that extract at least 500,000 cubic metres each day. Many shale gas projects yield less due to the hydraulic rock fracturing process (“fracking”), and hence were not subject to an impact assessment requirement.

MEPs have now voted to make environmental impact assessments mandatory, regardless of the quantity extracted, for all exploration and exploitation of non-conventional hydrocarbons (shale gas and oil, coal gas, et cetera).

Lead MEP Andrea Zanoni (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Italy) was granted a mandate by 332 votes to 311 with 14 abstentions, to negotiate a first-reading agreement with EU ministers. Accordingly, Amendments 79, 112 and 126 have been made to Annex 1 of the EIA Directive.

Zanoni said: “We are revising this key legislation to align it with Europe’s new priorities, such as soils, resource use and protecting biodiversity. Hydraulic fracturing raises concerns. We lay down clear criteria to avoid conflicts of interest and involve the public.”

 

‘Jewel in the crown’ of European Union environmental policy

The aforementioned amendments involving fracking are part of a broader assessment of the EIA Directive.

Described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of European Union environmental policy in one European Parliament statement, it incorporates 200 types of projects within its scope and aims to ensure their environmental sustainability.

Assessments of the impact of any given project are based on considerations of biodiversity, the use of natural resources, climate change and natural and man-made disaster risks.

Identification of weaknesses

However, a number of weaknesses in the EIA Directive have been identified in recent years, resulting in a ‘large number’ of legal disputes.

Accordingly, the key aims within the amendments are as follows (excluding the inclusion of non-conventional hydrocarbons in Annex 1):

  • Public involvement in line with the Aarhus Convention;
  • The absolute independence of the competent authority from the developer;
  • Ensuring the appropriate corrective action where monitoring shows that the mitigation and compensation measures required for an authorised project are not effective;
  • The drawing up and verification of environmental reports by totally independent experts.

The amendments are hoped to remedy the problems identified and to bring the text of the directive into line with the new policy priorities of the EU, such as the Soil Thematic Strategy, the Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe and the Europe 2020 strategy.

An explanatory statement from the European Parliament adds that: ‘The proposed amendments are thus essentially designed to enhance the proposal, by including some measures aiming to make it even more effective and easier to transpose into national legislation and to help it to achieve its environmental protection objectives more effectively.’

Internal reaction

Following the vote to revise the EIA Directive, EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said: “I welcome the outcome of today’s [9 October] vote on the Commission’s proposal for a revised Environmental Impact Assessment Directive.

“This paves the way for much-needed changes that will modernise the current directive, in line with the REFIT [Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme] agenda, improving its effectiveness and streamlining related administrative processes. Fundamentally, it’s a vote of confidence in what has always been one of the foundations of EU environment policy, a key piece of legislation that ensures the concerns of citizens are taken into account when important new developments are needed.

“We will now be carefully examining the proposed amendments. I look forward to working closely with the parliament and member states to ensure progress is made towards adopting the revised directive as soon as possible.”

Fracking

Fracking involves water treated with chemicals and sand being injected into wells at up to 8,000 pounds per square inch of pressure (psi). This fractures the surrounding rock whilst the sand props the fissures open, allowing gas to flow into the well to be collected at the surface.

Opponents of fracking argue that the technique contributes to climate change, causes air pollution, can contaminate drinking supplies with methane and toxic chemicals, and can trigger earthquakes.

Those who support the industry tend to dismiss such concerns as misguided or based on myth, with a recent Chatham House briefingon shale gas claiming it’s ‘an area where popular ignorance overrules science’.

The process is banned in several European countries, including France and Bulgaria, but is being encouraged by the governments of others, including the UK.