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Tories’ dirty exemption opens door for fracking in national parks

This morning government MPs – including the Conservative MP for Bristol North West, Charlotte Leslie – supported an exemption which could allow companies to start constructing fracking wells in national parks. 

As a Labour whip, I coordinated our response to a rule change which changes the law designed to prevent fracking in our national parks. These rules were brought in in 2014 thanks to Labour front benchers at the time, putting pressure on the then Coalition government and in a context of great public pressure.

The Petroleum Licensing (Exploration and Protection) (Landward Areas) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 does not sound like the most exciting piece of legislation to discuss on a Wednesday morning. However, regulations (or statutory instruments, as they are called) like these give the Government ways to amend legislation which avoid the kind of debate in the main commons chamber that you often see on TV. It’s my job to ensure Labour MPs who are selected to scrutinise this bill in committees are fully up to speed with what the government is proposing. Especially when in this case it amounts to a dirty exemption which pushes through weakened regulations through the backdoor.

The amendment would remove prohibitions on building fracking wells in protected areas (such as national parks), provided the proposed well would contain less than 10,000 cubic metres of fluid.

Nearly half of all fracking wells in the US have a capacity of less than 10,000 cubic metres. Furthermore, the amendment doesn’t place any limit on the number of wells that can be built in a protected area. If a fracking company want to come along, and build lots of fracking wells in a National Park – each with a capacity of less than 10,000 cubic metres – then there will be no legislation in place to stop them.

My colleagues Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Maria Eagle MP, Paul Flynn MP and John Woodcock MP attempted to convince the committee to vote against the government’s amendment, with my support as Opposition Whip (that’s part of my role, to help the front bench to challenge the government when we think they have got something wrong). We successfully convinced two Tory MPs not to vote – which sent their front bench team into a quandary. Frustratingly, however, the rest of the Conservative MPs, including the MP for Bristol North West, Charlotte Leslie, voted for the regulation, leaving this loophole to stand.

I am certain that if this were to be debated by the full House of Commons there would be many MPs from all parties who would be unhappy with it – that’s why today I spent time helping our front bench team to kick off a campaign to fight this. If you have friends who live in or close to a National Park, you may want to let them know that they should lobby their MP and show they aren’t happy.

I firmly believe that the government’s enthusiasm for fracking shows they have the wrong priorities in addressing our energy challenges. In waving through this amendment, the Conservatives have refused to protect our national parks and our sites of special scientific interest. It is Labour who today have stood up for our environment, while the Conservatives were willing to sacrifice our natural heritage sites and give fracking a green light.

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