A Conservative MP today warned against a “north-south divide” over fracking as controversy continued to rage over prospecting for shale gas.
Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Eric Ollerenshaw said that the rest of the country appeared to want Lancashire to act as its “energy base”, and warned that he would not be ready to accept a situation where “the North gets the dirty end and the South sucks up all the energy”.
Mr Ollerenshaw was speaking after Tory peer Lord Howell of Guildford sparked outrage by suggesting that fracking should be confined to “desolate” parts of the North of England.
And energy minister Michael Fallon appeared to relish the idea of fracking underneath the homes of “chattering class” commentators in the affluent South, joking: “All these people writing leaders saying, ‘Why don’t they get on with shale?’ We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive!”
Lancashire has been identified as one of the areas of Britain with most potential for hydraulic fracturing, which involves using water and chemicals to break up rocks deep underground, with a recent report suggesting there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas present.
But Mr Ollerenshaw said it was important that any extraction operations benefit local people in the county.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “What Lord Howell was trying to say just reinforces, if you like, a northern prejudice that southerners haven’t got a clue what the North-West is like, or indeed the North-East.
“It does look as if the rest of the country wants to use Lancashire as its energy base. There’s a particular environmental concern about the use of water and the impact on the water table... but long term what is going to be the benefit to the area where this is going to happen?
“This is not to become a north-south divide... We want (a) level playing field across the country. We do not want - and it looks at the moment - that the North gets the dirty end and the South sucks up all the energy.”
Mr Ollerenshaw’s concerns about the possible effect of fracking on water tables was echoed by Liberal Democrat minister Don Foster
Mr Foster told BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend: “I think we need a very cautious approach to this. My own constituency in Bath is one where the fracking, if it went ahead, would take place very close to the water supplies that provide the water springs into Bath. If the fracking is taking place close to those water tables, then there could be a real danger.”
He added: “It’s a real opportunity that we don’t want to miss if it can be used safely, but equally making sure we have full regard to the environmental concerns that some people have expressed. I think that’s the right approach.”
Lib Dem party president Tim Farron warned against a “short-sighted” rush to shale gas, which he suggested could inflict long-lasting damage on the countryside.
Mr Farron told the Sunday Telegraph: “I am afraid the Government has seen flashing pound signs and has not considered the long-term threats fracking poses to the countryside.
“I think this is a very short-sighted policy and we will all be left to live with the consequences.”
Energy minister Mr Fallon has been a public advocate of shale gas, but his reported comments to a private meeting appeared to suggest that he may give some credence to critics’ warnings about possible environmental damage, including small scale earthquakes.
The Mail on Sunday said that he told the meeting that sites for fracking could include not only Lancashire but also large areas of The Weald in the South-East.
“It’s from Dorset all the way along through Hampshire, Sussex, East Sussex, West Sussex, all the way perhaps a bit into Surrey and even into my county of Kent. It’s right there,” he said.
“The beauty of that - please don’t write this down - is that of course it’s underneath the commentariat. All these people writing leaders saying, `Why don’t they get on with shale?’ We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive!”
A DECC spokesman did not dispute the paper’s account of the comments, but said: “Fracking will only be allowed in the Weald if it is safe and poses no risk to the environment.”
Craig Bennett, director of of Friends of the Earth’s policy and campaigns, said: “Michael Fallon’s unguarded comments will resonate across the UK and fuel more opposition to the Government’s disastrous support for fracking.
“Ministers must pull the plug on shale gas and oil extraction, especially as there’s plenty of evidence they won’t lead to cheaper fuel bills.
“We need an energy policy based on cutting waste and developing the nation’s huge renewable power potential - not one that wrecks our clean and pleasant land and pumps more pollution into our atmosphere.”
Activists were out in force again yesterday at the West Sussex village of Balcombe, which has become the focus of anti-fracking protests over recent days as energy company Cuadrilla began exploratory drilling at a test site.
Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, has revealed that he received an anonymous bomb threat earlier this week.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he said: “This week, I received an anonymous email saying that unless Cuadrilla ceased its activities in the UK, we would soon receive pipe bombs delivered by express mail to our premises. ‘Fracking kills,’ the message said, ‘and so do we’.”
It is understood the matter has been reported to the police.