By Elsa Buchanan, International Politics Correspondent
A Tories U-turn vote on fast-track fracking is being dubbed a ‘huge victory’, but campaigners say now is not the time to celebrate.
The government made a major U-turn on plans to fast-track UK fracking after accepting Labour proposals to tighten environmental regulations on Monday (26 January).
Campaigners welcomed the changes, describing the vote as “mark[ing] a huge loss for the fracking industry”.
“This is a win for the people-powered anti-fracking campaign,” said Martin Caldwell, of pressure group SumOfUs.org.
The 13 Labour changes accepted by ministers included a ban on drilling in national parks, areas of outstanding national beauty and areas where drinking water is collected.
The proposals also comprised the independent inspection of the integrity of wells, monitoring for leaks of methane and informing residents individually of fracking in their area.
The government proposal to allow “any substance” to be used in fracking wells was also overturned.
However, an attempt to impose a ban on shale gas exploration, as recommended by the report from MPs, including former Conservative environment secretary Caroline Spelman, was defeated after Labour ministers abstained.
The report , compiled by the Environmental Audit Committee, stated that shale fracking should be put on hold in the UK because it is incompatible with the country’s climate change targets and could pose significant localised environmental risks to public health.
“Ultimately fracking cannot be compatible with our long-term commitments to cut climate changing emissions unless full-scale carbon capture and storage technology is rolled out rapidly, which currently looks unlikely,” Joan Walley MP, chair of the Committee, said ahead of the vote.
“There are also huge uncertainties around the impact that fracking could have on water supplies, air quality and public health,”
Walley added: “The Government is trying to rush through changes to the trespass laws that would allow companies to frack under people’s homes without permission. This is profoundly undemocratic […].”
The infrastructure bill, which contains the new rules for fracking, now goes to the House of Lords, where further changes could be made.
Caldwell underlined the fact that yesterday’s vote does not rule out the government’s controversial fracking plans.
“Despite the huge win, the government still got its corporate-sponsored fracking bill onto the statute books, and now wants to spend £80 million of taxpayer money to boost the fracking industry’s terrible reputation,” the campaigner said in a statement.
The Observer revealed the plan, called the energy security and innovation observing system, in November last year.
The plan includes the drilling of hundreds of boreholes across Britain to try to persuade the public that a looming shale gas boom can be developed safely.
“It [the government] is trying to persuade us that fracking is safe – which it isn’t,” Caldwell explained. “Affected communities around the world have shown us that fracking pollutes the groundwater and air, is dangerous for our health, and emits large amounts of greenhouse gas.”
This was echoed by Green party MP Caroline Lucas, one of the MPs who wrote the environment audit committee’s report that backed a moratorium on shale gas exploration, who criticised the Labour amendments as weak.
“Yesterday’s debate was farcical – so little time was given that we weren’t even able to bring the trespass amendment to vote. That amendment sought to prevent fracking companies being awarded sweeping new powers to frack beneath your home without your consent – a move opposed by 99 per cent of respondents to the Government’s own consultation,” she wrote on her website.
The amendment was backed in a petition by 360,000 people, Lucas highlighted.
“When it came to a freeze on fracking, Labour abstained. Instead they served up their own superficial tweaks, lacking in detail and riddled with loopholes.”
David Cameron had previously said the government was “going all out” for shale gas development, but widespread public concern forced ministers to back down.
MP Lucas described the strength of public feeling on this issue as “palpable”.
“I think it’s intensified still further in the face of the astonishing lack of transparency, lack of accountability and lack of regard for the views of voters. People won’t be silenced on this,” she added.
Indeed, less than a quarter of the public now supports shale gas extraction, according to official government polling.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change public opinion tracker, published in August, showed that public support and opposition were evenly matched at 24 per cent, while almost half of respondents said they were neutral on the issue.
The research contradicted findings from a poll by the UK Onshore Operators Group, which represents fracking firms, which found that 57 per cent were in favour and just 16 per cent against.