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Gordon Marsden: Shale Gas - the Challenges and Implications

Fracking.jpgStanding as a candidate for re-election in Blackpool South, I have produced this update on shale gas issues and the key issues for us in Blackpool, after the Cuadrilla applications and after the Coalition Government tried to force the pace on fracking.

Despite me and my Labour colleagues’ success in securing some key concessions on fracking, recent developments have shown the Tory Coalition’s relentless drive to fracking remains undimmed. 

Success on Greater Safeguards Threatened by Coalition Backtrack

This Government’s poorly thought-out Infrastructure Bill reinforced wide concerns about fracking – on underground access, robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement. As I’ve said previously there was an appalling dereliction of democracy with just two hours as part of a much bigger Bill initially given for debate of such a vital issue, and most of which was taken up by Ministers themselves defending the drive to fracking, giving little time for backbench MPs to speak.

When the Infrastructure Bill came before Parliament in January, I and other North-West Labour MPs vigorously pressed frontbench colleagues dealing with this and Labour’s position included a ‘laser-like focus’ on safety and the impacts on local communities that I had right back in 2013 called for in a Westminster Hall debate on fracking and the Fylde. Pledging to vote to block any further consideration of fracking unless there was a proper, rigorous safety regime in place. And indeed, with leading environmental charities like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB backing our amendment, the Government was forced to agree in the Commons to adopt Labour’s package of thirteen new conditions and regulatory restrictions. These measures increased the area and depth to be blocked off from underground access without permission. As the Blackpool Gazette reported at the time, mandated professional assessments of potential shale sites are crucial both in terms of the water table and environmental aspects.

These measures in total delivered a major check to the irresponsible approach to fracking the Coalition had taken. They would have ensured that the landscape, water supplies and interests of local communities are given much stronger protections and standards.

I intervened in that debate to have the Deputy Speaker confirm that the legislation could in principle be further amended during its next stage in Parliament, the House of Lords. With the Government making concessions to avoid defeat, I hoped this might be used to strengthen further the restrictions on fracking. Yet once away from the limelight of news coverage, the Government did the opposite.

In the House of Lords Government Ministers backtracked on their previous commitment to fully implement Labour’s amendments. This was a decision that attracted strong criticism from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, amongst others. Cameron’s Ministers reneged on the promise to ban fracking in areas that protect drinking water, meaning fracking could take place near aquifers. They also failed to deliver the promise to prevent fracking under national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. Agreements that residents would be individually notified of any fracking and that any type of gas leak would be recorded were also broken.

No wonder Labour’s energy spokesman Tom Greatrex protested, ‘the range of protections [originally accepted by the Government] cannot be cherry-picked. It is vital for groundwater, and sources of drinking water, to be properly protected.’ Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others condemned the Coalition for double-dealing and undermining the Labour amendments they had accepted to avoid defeat.

Our success in forcing the Government to the point of defeat on fracking, and forcing their hand into accepting a range of new restrictions shows the power that a Labour Government could have in putting safety back at the heart of any discussions on new forms of energy. It’s why Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace quoted Labour’s Energy spokesman Tom Greatrex’s words in the debate that the amendment should be implemented ‘in full, completely and comprehensively.’

Counting the Potential Costs of Fracking – for Residents and Visitors

For myself, I’m very clear what the case is against the enthusiasts who want to go ahead gung-ho with fracking – without proper regulation or considering other factors nationally or locally. The arguments that fracking will lead to a bonanza of jobs and skills in the Fylde or wider region are based on no firm evidence. The so-called statistics on this and house prices quoted by the self-styled North West Energy Task Force (which is supported by those who which to obtain licences and cannot be considered either authoritative or impartial) merely repeat ‘feel-good’ claims by Cuadrilla and their supporters. Far more important – and damning - is the Coalition Government’s effective censorship of a report from its own Defra department which looked at the effect of shale gas drilling on house prices, local services and the environment. There were 63 blocking-out or ‘redactions’ in just 13 pages of the report on economic, social and local service impacts. Despite Labour and other MPs demanding its full publication during this spring’s debates on fracking, Cameron and his Ministers have refused and continue to block it.

The manoeuvrings, distortion and blatant partiality of Tory ministers over fracking in the Fylde have been disgraceful. David Cameron publicly proclaimed he wanted Blackpool to be the ‘fracking capital’ of Europe – without asking us! No wonder a Blackpool Gazette editorial took him to task on it. Tory Minister Matt Hancock tried to turn his visit to Blackpool to announce the new Energy College promised to Blackpool and The Fylde College into a propaganda campaign for shale. But the welcome development of this facility and its prospectus actually also looks at a whole range of other technologies, including renewables and conventional oil and gas exploration on and off-shore – not least here in Liverpool Bay.

As I have consistently said, and repeated when I spoke at the all-day conference on fracking held in Blackpool in January, there has been little or no concern expressed or focus given to the impact on our seaside or rural tourism in Blackpool and the Fylde by the Coalition or their fracking enthusiasts if large-scale exploration went ahead. And yet continued controversy and the disruption, pressure on roads and the environment from vehicles and fracking activity could jeopardise our area’s image to the hundreds of thousands, millions of visitors who come here to enjoy the coast, the leisure outlets and the countryside of the area. The impact this could have on hundreds of our small (as well as large) businesses – B&Bs, cafes, outdoor activities, garden centres etc – is being ignored by the fracking fraternity.

Fracking is being proposed in areas of the UK which have 5, 10 times the amount of people and homes density to those where it has already taken place in the US. Given the current situation with oil supply and
prices, and the recent reports that onshore conventional exploration near Gatwick could yield major future oil supplies, is this a time to be rushing to shale, overriding all the considerations that should be raised? I think not.

That’s why I believe we need the full set of regulations and safeguards which Labour put forward being put back firmly on the statute book and taken forward by the next Labour Government. That’s what I will rigorously campaign for if re-elected as MP for Blackpool South.

Campaigning for a cleaner, greener future for Blackpool

There is also a fundamental issue of principle here which I believe Lancashire’s planners need to take into account when they finally make their much delayed decision on Cuadrilla’s applications. If we believe in devolution of powers to local communities, as Labour is committed to, that must include a key say for local people in planning decisions that will change their environments substantially. That’s why I concluded my remarks at the Blackpool conference by saying, as the Gazette reported, ‘The decision we make cannot easily be reversed as these decisions are not just for ourselves but for our children too.’

It’s why incidentally I have so strongly opposed insensitive development on Marton Moss in the past and continue to monitor sharply with residents the building activities there. It’s why I’ve argued for rail and other transport improvements between Blackpool through South Shore and into the Fylde so we can promote tourism but also sustainable green-orientated and visitor-friendly businesses, ones that bring jobs and opportunities for young people but also are in keeping with the local environment and the drive for renewables and meeting our climate change commitments. It’s why among my election pledges in this campaign is one to ‘make protecting Blackpool’s green spaces, quality of life and decent homes to live in my priorities.’

To do that I need the support of people who care too about these things. I hope I will get that support to continue as the MP in Blackpool South, in a seat which will be, as it was last time in 2010, a tight race between myself and the Conservatives whose record on these issues is extremely poor. 

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