Crunch day for frackers: UK shale gas industry in the hands of parliament

Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has protested against fracking (Source: Getty)
The future of UK fracking will be subject to the scrutiny of parliament today, as part of the debate on a wider infrastructure bill. The government wants to make it easier for companies to drill without permission from those who own the land or property, yet Labour is proposing a set of amendments to the legislation and has said it would not permit fracking to go ahead unless 13 regulatory loopholes are closed.

Labour’s shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex indicated his party is not opposed to fracking in principle, acknowledging the role shale gas could play in improving the UK’s energy security. He added: “But that potential benefit cannot come at the expense of robust environmental protections. Labour will force a vote on Monday to prevent shale gas developments in the UK unless these loopholes are closed.”

The suggestions are not too stringent. They include requirements for environmental impact assessments, inspections and monitoring, and a stipulation that fracking can only take place at a depth of 1,000m or more.

In addition to Labour’s proposals, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which includes Green MP Caroline Lucas and former Conservative environment minister Caroline Spelman, as well as Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, has called for all fracking activity to be suspended. The group has proposed “a moratorium on the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas deposits in order to reduce the risk of carbon budgets being breached”.

The SNP has instructed its MPs to vote in favour of the moratorium today, with Mike Weir, the party’s energy spokesman at Westminster, stating: “Before there could be anything going forward with fracking there would have to be an assessment to take account of the impacts of exploration on climate change, environment, health and safety and the economy.” And Scottish Labour could be on a collision course with colleagues in London, as leader Jim Murphy has declared publicly he will not allow fracking in Scotland if he becomes first minister.

Although the UK’s shale gas business seems to be facing a further series of setbacks, industry body UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) has brushed off many of the obstacles. “Many of the Labour amendments are in line with industry best practice,” Ken Cronin, UKOOG’s chief executive, told City A.M. He added that the UK “has a world- renowned regulatory regime which will ensure all the environmental and public health concerns about hydraulic fracturing are addressed”.

Cronin also shot down the EAC’s recommendations. “Calling for a moratorium achieves only one thing – increasing the levels of gas coming from outside the UK at a substantially higher environmental cost and with significant economic consequences,” he stated yesterday. “No evidence exists of a failure in the current multi-regulated arrangements.”

Regardless of Cronin’s confidence, there can only be one winner from today’s debate, and it could well be the anti-fracking movement. It all depends on whether the government decides to cut its losses or keep digging.

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