Fracking threatens tremors in general election
By Emma Bishop
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New fracking land rules proposed
Q&A: What is fracking?
Fracking protesters at PM’s home
“Every time ministers open their mouths to claim that fracking must start everywhere around Britain, and not just in carefully selected and remote areas, they lose thousands of Tory votes.”
These words, from George Osborne’s father-in-law Lord Howell in May this year, go some way to explaining why fracking – the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock – is already one of the issues to watch out for in the run-up to next year’s general election.
The coalition government has thrown its support behind it, with an Infrastructure Bill containing measures to change trespass laws to facilitate fracking, incentives offered to local communities for accommodating fracking, generous tax breaks for the fracking industry, and a new oil and gas “licensing round” which has opened up almost half the country to the potential of exploratory drilling.
Although the government’s position is clear, it is less so within political parties.
Lib Dem ‘disquiet’
The Conservative Party’s enthusiasm for fracking is, officially, supported by the Lib Dem leadership. The Liberal Democrat conference in 2013 approved a motion on fracking, with Nick Clegg adopting a tone of cautious support and highlighting the value of domestically-sourced gas.
Lib Dem Ed Davey, Energy and Climate Change Secretary, believes that “UK shale gas can be developed sensibly and safely, protecting the local environment, with the right regulation”. However, the party generally is much more divided.
Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood claims “there is a huge amount of disquiet about fracking within the party”. Opponents of fracking range from party president Tim Farron down to Lib Dem grassroots members, who are anxious to maintain their green credentials.
But after a term in government, the Lib Dems cannot rely on being the default choice on this sort of issue for protest voters.
The UK Independence Party, which has moved above the Lib Dems in many recent opinion polls, has appeared to be the most enthusiastic of the four largest parties on fracking.
Labour’s policy is that it wants tougher conditions – including 12 months’ monitoring of condition before drilling to ensure there is a robust baseline against which to check whether any seismic activity or methane in groundwater is the result of fracking
But, the party says, “provided it can be done in a safe and environmentally sustainable way, we will support shale gas exploration”.
On a visit last year to Lancashire – one of the UK’s fracking hotspots where exploratory drilling is already taking place – Ed Miliband said: “I think we’ve got to look really carefully about this. There’s strong local feeling and we’ve got to look at, and investigate, the issue very seriously.”
There are three areas of the UK identified by the British Geological Survey (BGS) as having significant shale gas reserves – the Bowland basin of north-west England, the central belt of Scotland, and the Weald Basin in south-east England.
Many pockets of these areas are already licensed for exploratory drilling, and have seen numerous anti-fracking protests.
On 28 July the government opened up lots more of the UK to oil and gas exploration.
Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Louise Hutchins says: “Now that the government has auctioned off half of the country to this controversial industry, there’s going to be a hefty political price to pay… this is likely to prove a highly toxic policy cocktail in the run-up to the next elections, especially in marginal seats and key battlegrounds, where every vote counts.”