Energy secretary Amber Rudd previously committed to an outright ban on fracking in national parks such as the Peak District. Photograph: Paul Whitehurst/Alamy
Ministers have been accused of trying to sneak through new rules allowing shale drilling under national parks without a proper parliamentary debate, in a move condemned by Labour and anti-fracking campaigners.
The rules, first proposed in July, would permit drilling underneath protected areas, despite a commitment before the election from Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, to have an outright ban on fracking in national parks, sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Instead of a full parliamentary debate, the controversial measures will instead be discussed and voted on by a small committee of MPs on Tuesday. All MPs will get to vote on the regulations at some point next week but will be denied the chance of a debate.
The 18 committee members include 10 Conservatives, including energy minister Andrea Leadsom, Julian Smith, an assistant whip, and Paul Maynard, a parliamentary aide to Rudd whose local association received a £5,000 donation before the election from Addison Projects, a company that could benefit from fracking. Maynard, the MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, has said the donation was in no way connected to the development of shale gas.
Greenpeace estimates that 23 MPs have constituencies that include national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty that could be affected by the new rules – including the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the Conservative chairman of the Treasury committee, Andrew Tyrie, and Oliver Letwin, the Conservative chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
The charity does not believe any of the MPs on the committee are likely to see shale drilling near national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty in their own constituencies.
Labour managed to secure an amendment to the infrastructure bill in January to ensure that fracking could not take place in areas where drinking water is collected or in protected sensitive areas.
However, the new regulationsissued just weeks after the election say fracking would be allowed to take place below 1,200 metres in national parks, the broads, areas of outstanding natural beauty, world heritage sites and areas that are most vulnerable to groundwater pollution. To do this, fracking companies would have to drill down and sideways from outside protected areas.
SSSIs, conservation areas for wildlife and plants, would receive no protection under the regulations.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow energy secretary, and Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment secretary, said this amounted to an attempt to “sneak through fracking regulations that are totally inadequate, completing their U-turn”.
They also accused the Conservatives of using parliamentary procedures to ensure a debate overran to deny MPs the chance to debate a reinstatement of safeguards.
“The new Conservative government is once again using a parliamentary back door to put something through at the committee in the Commons this week. This isn’t good enough. This is a serious issue and it deserves a full debate on the floor of the house,” Nandy and McCarthy said.
Daisy Sands, head of energy at Greenpeace, said it was “deeply disturbing that the government appears to be playing fast and loose with democracy”.
“Not only are they breaking their promise that national parks would not be scarred by fracking, but they are trying to sneak these regulations through the back door of parliament without any consent from the public and without any proper scrutiny from MPs. It is abundantly clear that this government is trying to force fracking on a reluctant nation using every trick in the book,” she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said the proposals were not new and the legislative process was routine.
“We laid these regulations and publicised them in July,” he said. “The UK has one of the best track records in the world for protecting our environment while developing our industries – these regulations will get this vital industry moving while protecting our environment and people.”