Why Labour should extend their moratorium on fracking

Polls indicate three times more support for local wind farms than fracking - it's time for the government to listen


In the run up to the General Election, Left Foot Forward is taking a look back at the coalition’s record. This week we focus on the environment, and each day we will feature a piece which looks at the impact of coalition policies on the planet over the past five years. Today Oliver Hayes from Friends of the Earth looks at the fracking debate so far this year.

January was a febrile month for fracking. Set against the backdrop of a noisy and celebrity filled anti-fracking rally in Westminster, on the 26th MPs voted on the controversial issue for the first and only time in this parliament.

A vote was called in the Infrastructure Bill (now Act) – an extraordinarily broad piece of legislation covering everything from B roads to beavers – on a proposed fracking moratorium. New York State, Berlin, France, Wales, Scotland, Algeria and even Denton in Texas, the birthplace of fracking, have all adopted moratoria, calling a halt to the destructive technology while evidence of its impacts is gathered and assessed.

The proposal was that an 18 month pause should take place here too, during which time the implications for drinking water, public health and noise and air pollution could be interrogated.

Despite the evident logic of this proposal, it was squashed by the coalition government. Disappointingly the Labour party failed to come out in support of the measure, with whips instead instructing opposition MPs to abstain. But a healthy minority rebelled, with 51 MPs from a cross section of parties placing themselves surely on the right side of history.

The day’s blanket news coverage focused in part on Labour’s hardening in their position on fracking regulations and, significantly, a subsequent concession from government. Where previously Labour supported six key tests, now, Labour said, their 13 ‘regulatory conditions’ must be in law before any fracking can be sanctioned.

Surprisingly, the Conservative minister accepted these conditions, before hastily backtracking on the most important bits in the Lords a week later. Labour’s encouraging response, articulated most recently by Caroline Flint in a national environment hustings, is that unless all 13 of these conditions are on the statute books – including keeping fracking out of those areas from where drinking water is sourced – shale gas extraction will not be sanctioned anywhere.

Strong regulations are of course important (although health impacts are notable by their absence in Labour’s list of 13), but they do not take account of climate change. Friends of the Earth believes fracking should be banned outright principally on climate change grounds: 80 per cent of known fossil fuels must stay in the ground if we are to avoid dangerous global temperature rises, so extracting and burning a new one is not an option.

So while we’d prefer Labour to say they’re against fracking full stop, they should as a minimum extend their effective moratorium until not just their 13 conditions are in law, but also until the government’s climate advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, have finished their assessment of whether fracking and tackling climate change are compatible, due to report to parliament by 2016.

While the nuances of parliamentary positions have evolved in London, Lancashire has of course remained the front line of the battle against fracking.

Cuadrilla’s long running attempt to rev up the rigs in Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road looked doomed after the County Council’s planning officers recommended their applications be rejected on noise and traffic grounds. Fearing an effective death knell for the industry in the UK – the decisions are widely expected to set the precedent for elsewhere – the firm’s lawyers got to work and secured a deferral for several months.

Which brings us to now, and this extraordinary election campaign.

While the national headlines have been largely frack-free, the local battles have – particularly in Lancashire – seen shale front and centre. Hustings in fracking hotspots are dominated by the issue, and over a thousand prospective parliamentary candidates – including a fifth of Labour PPCs – have now signed Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace’s Frack Free Promise, pledging to oppose the industry locally and nationally.

Even three Tories, whose party remains steadfastly ‘all out’ for shale, have signed the promise. Their constituents will doubtless be paying close attention to voting records after 8 May.

And the local pressure is filtering up to manifesto teams. While Labour’s contained little new on the issue, this week’s Green Plan – Labour are the only party so far to publish a bespoke environment document – announced a further improvement, spelling out that the pursuit of fracking mustn’t compromise the UK’s climate change commitments.

While there was no detail of how the party will ensure this, it’s a significant step forward and puts Labour several notches ahead of the Lib Dems’ unqualified support for fracking. Labour extending their moratorium until the Committee on Climate Change reports on climate and fracking is the obvious way for the party to make good on this promise.

Whatever the outcome of the election on 7 May, parties can be sure that fracking is not an issue that’s going to disappear. With 99 per cent of respondents to the government’s consultation – and a third of a million petitioners – opposing drilling under people’s homes, and polls indicating a preference for nearby wind farms over fracking rigs by three times as many people, the next intake of MPs can expect postbags stuffed with fracking objections until the industry – which has now gone four years without a single frack – is rightly sent packing.

Oliver Hayes is a political campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Follow him on Twitter

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