Brakes put on fracking in Portuguese nature zone

Fracking licences previously granted for protected areas have been canceled after a group of NGOs successfully campaigned against the plans.

The Portuguese Environment Agency has put two onshore natural gas exploration licences that were previously granted in 2015 on hold until the environmental risk is properly assessed.

Natural gas exploration – widely referred to as fracking – has been criticised by the UN for its potential to negatively impact the environment, the climate, and human health.

In a statement the agency said:

“The environmental assessment procedure will have to be restarted by the tenderer, who can not initiate any action on the ground, until a new APA [Portuguese Environment Agency] decision”

Back in September 2015, the Portuguese Environment Agency signed contracts for natural gas exploration in protected areas of central Portugal’s Lusitanian Basin without ordering an evaluation into how the plans would affect the environment.

The fracking licence gave Australis Oil & Gas the green light to drill for natural gas on approximately 2,500 km2 of land. This includes the municipality of Pombal which is home to the ‘Natura 2000’ site Sicó-Alvaiázere.

Natura 2000 areas are designated under EU nature protection laws to ensure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Nature-damaging activities are supposed to be restricted on these sites.

The Portuguese Environment Agency announced the backtrack on the granted fracking licences just days after a local court stopped another drilling project in the south of Portugal.

Drilling projects are regulated by European laws and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) are required in certain circumstances. An EIA is an assessment of how a project will impact the environment. When it comes to gas extraction, they are conducted when a substantial quantity of gas is extracted – at least 500,000 cubic metres per day.

According to Portuguese campaigners ZERO, the law that incorporates these EU rules on assessing environmental impacts into Portuguese rules specifically mentions that an EIA is mandatory in cases related to hydrocarbon:

“The spirit and purpose of Law No. 37/2017, of June 2, approved by the Assembly of the Republic, was to effectively promote a formal process of environmental impact assessment in the exploration phase of search, exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons.”

After a public consultation that ran in the beginning of 2018, where citizens and organisations expressed their views on the matter, the Portuguese government acknowledged the general opinion:

“In the context of the public consultation carried out, most opinions are expressed in favour of an Environmental Impact Assessment procedure for the project under analysis, either by application of the precautionary principle, or by the location, size and characteristics of the project.”

Quercus, a member of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), took part in the consultation and defended the precautionary principle which they say should be applied in this case:

“A survey for natural gas exploration, even for a single 3200 metre deep and 700 metre wide hole in the subsoil, must be subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment due to the high risks, particularly on aquifers and water resources in general terms in a sensitive area near the Calvary Estremenho Massif.”

The project will remain on hold until Australis Oil & Gas carries out an EIA and presents the results to the Portuguese Environment Agency.