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Britain Thwarts EU Plan To Create Binding Fracking Rules

Natural Gas Europe

A determined lobbying campaign led by Britain has buried plans for the European Union to legislate uniform regulations on shale gas exploration across the 28 member states.

Instead, the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, will issue a nonbinding “recommendation” next week asking governments to submit their plans for shale exploration and extraction and to outline their proposals for public review, E.U. officials said.

The document, to be released Jan. 22, is a significant setback for opponents of hydraulic fracturing, who sought hard and fast rules to protect the public from threats they fear the drilling process will bring.

The commission originally planned to issue a “directive,” which would require legislative approval by the European Parliament and would have the force of law.

Fracking is a far more volatile issue in Europe than in the United States. France and Romania have banned it outright, while Germany has adopted a moratorium. Except for the United Kingdom and Poland, few other E.U. nations have shown much interest in shale.

The recommendation would not prevent any country from imposing a ban or other domestic restrictions.

On the winning side is British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose intervention capped a well-strategized effort to forestall legislation that he saw as an unwarranted hindrance to investment.

E.U. officials say a recommendation, while lacking the legal force of a directive, still carries “political weight” that would be difficult for countries to ignore.

And its legal status could be upgraded if the commission finds that its recommendation is being flouted.

The draft document says that any country intending to issue permits to explore or extract shale gas should advise the commission on its “public consultation” and environmental impact assessment.

After six months, the commission will issue a scoreboard of what each country plans to do.

“If we are not satisfied with the steps members are taking, we will revisit the possibility of legislation” after 18 months, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity, since the policy has not yet been released.

Behind the scenes

Britain plotted for months to scuttle legislation. An internal communication last November by Ivan Rogers, London’s envoy to the European Union, warned his government that Brussels was moving toward adopting binding rules.

London, he argued, should ensure that the forthcoming climate and energy package, which encompasses the fracking rules, “includes robust guidance, shaped by the UK, but no legislative proposal on shale,” said Rogers’ note. It was leaked yesterday to European Voice and was confirmed by officials who had seen it.

Rogers also suggested that the European Union could barter its agreement to drop shale legislation to persuade Poland to go along with reductions in carbon emissions. Warsaw has long resisted an E.U. goal for a 40 percent reduction by 2030.

Britain worked hard to line up support. Its environment secretary hosted a series of dinners in Brussels with European counterparts. Poland, the E.U. country that has gone furthest in shale exploration, was on board. Then came Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Cameron went public with the campaign last month, releasing a letter to Commission President José Manuel Barroso arguing against further “regulatory burdens and costs on industry” that could only drive up U.K. domestic energy bills. “The industry in the UK has told us that new EU legislation would delay imminent investment,” he wrote.

Legislating harmony

From the commission’s perspective, a recommendation has some advantages. A binding directive would be a contentious issue in Parliament that could take up to two years to be enacted. In the process, it could undergo major revisions. A recommendation, on the other hand, is like an edict or executive order, not subject to negotiation.

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