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At an anti-fracking demonstration held Monday, January 26 outside Parliament. (Photo: DAVID HOLT/flickr/cc)

UK Battle Lines Sharpen over Gas Drilling as Parliament Rejects Fracking Ban

Fracking faces 'overwhelming public resistance concern and opposition from ordinary people,' says Bianca Jagger

Deirdre Fulton

The fight against fracking in the U.K. heated up on Monday, following the release of a damning report from an influential parliamentary committee that said the practice is incompatible with the government's goal of mitigating climate change.

"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," said Joan Walley MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which released on Monday a report (pdf) analyzing the risks of fracking. "There are also huge uncertainties around the impact that fracking could have on water supplies, air quality and public health."

"The only way to safeguard our climate, local communities and their environment from the fracking threat is to halt shale gas completely."
—Donna Hume, Friends of the Earth UK

Environmentalists have long warned of such dangers. But the focus on climate was something new—the Environmental Audit Committee's report warned that only a fraction of U.K. shale reserves could be safely burned if global warming was to be kept below two degrees, the target of international climate negotiations.

"Until now the main focus of environmental concern has been on the risks of pollution," said BBC science editor David Shukman of the committee's report. "Any worries about noise or the potential for contaminated drinking water have essentially been local. But highlighting the climate angle gives the debate a national perspective."

The recommendation from the Environmental Audit Committee came as parliament prepared to vote on a controversial infrastructure bill, which contained a measure that would allow companies to drill and frack at depth without the landowners’ permission. The Commons took up the fracking moratorium proposal as part of that debate.

Ultimately, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to reject an amendment calling for a halt to fracking. In a vote, 52 were in favour of the moratorium while 308 were against.

However, the government agreed to tighten the restrictions on where fracking can take place, with an outright ban on the activity in national parks, sites of special interest, and areas of national beauty.

Fracking opponents spun Monday's proceedings as a win for the environment in the face of government and industry pressures.

"Despite wanting to go ‘all out for shale’, the Government has been forced to agree to ban fracking in National Parks; set stricter conditions for fracking in individual areas; and has promised to introduce measures so that fracking could only go ahead if it was shown to be compatible with climate targets," read a press statement from Friends of the Earth.

But that group's energy campaigner, Donna Hume, admitted more work remains to be done:

Public opinion and increasing concern from MPs has forced the Government into retreat on fracking. Everywhere fracking is proposed, local communities say no.

But these concessions do not go far enough. These changes would not prevent fracking getting the green light in Lancashire, despite overwhelming opposition from local communities. 

The only way to safeguard our climate, local communities and their environment from the fracking threat is to halt shale gas completely. 

Ministers should stop believing their own fracking hype and concentrate on real solutions to the energy challenges we face such as the renewable power and cutting energy waste.

The Lancashire County Council is set to vote this week on whether to grant drilling company Cuadrilla permission to explore for shale gas in northwest England.

Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators—including elected officials and celebrities such as Bianca Jagger and Vivienne Westwood—gathered outside Parliament on Monday calling on MPs to say "no" to fracking.

Pro-fracking forces are pushing ahead, Jagger declared, "despite widespread public concern about the health and environmental impact of fracking and in the face of overwhelming public resistance concern and opposition from ordinary people."

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