Climate deniers Viscount Matt Ridley and Lord Nigel Lawson defended a controversial fracking U-turn by the Conservative-led government in the House of Lords last night that will reduce safety standards for shale gas exploration.
The Labour party tried to force through more stringent measures in the hotly contested Infrastructure Bill currently going through Parliament designed to protect groundwater which could supply homes and businesses.
But the government’s counter-proposal, tabled by Baroness Kramer, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, watered-down the language around safeguarding groundwater supplies from fracking. It now allows the relevant Secretary of State to define what constitutes a ‘protected area’.
Ridley, who has a profitable coal mine on his country estate, defended these “sensible” changes. “Crucially, the amendments also allow flexibility so that the industry can learn, adapt and evolve as it is going on,” he said.
“That is why it is crucial to leave some flexibility in the Bill with respect to the definition of groundwater areas, protected areas and so on,” continued the king of coal, who yesterday, writing in The Times, called fracking opponents “increasingly irrational”.
Baroness Verma, under-secretary of state for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, explained that the definition of protected areas and groundwater zones will be decided “at a later stage”. This will be after the bill is made law and is likely to be in July after the next government is elected.
Labour’s original proposal – passed two weeks ago in the House of Commons – would have restricted fracking in water source protection zones and other protected areas and imposed stringent regulations on drilling.
Baroness Jones of the Green Party, criticised the government for its U-turn: “Our drinking water needs protection; I cannot believe that anyone here does not agree with that.”
However, Lord Lawson, chairman of the climate denial charity The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) did not agree.
“Groundwater, in aquifers, is very close to the ground – that is why it is called that – while the fracking occurs between one mile and a mile and a half deep,” he said. “What she is saying has no merit whatever.”
Ridley, an advisor to the GWPF and a landed aristocrat, added: “Much of the opposition to shale gas – some of which we have heard today – is based on myths that are popular among the upper middle class in grand rural areas.”
Baroness Verma told the House of Lords: “We must be very careful not to put in place restrictions in areas that do not achieve the intended aim of the condition or that go beyond it and needlessly damage the potential development of the shale industry.”
Labour did not force a vote on the new conditions, which were adopted into the bill. But Lord Tunnicliffe warned that Labour would not support the government when the bill returned to the House of Commons.
“David Cameron has repeatedly ignored people’s genuine and legitimate environmental concerns over shale gas,” Tunnicliffe said. “Regulatory gaps need to be filled to ensure the right conditions are in place before any drilling to explore or extract unconventional gas is permitted.”
Jones of the Green party said this was not nearly enough. “Labour has flip-flopped badly on this, and I cannot help but feel that it does not understand how important this issue is,” she said.
“In passing the Bill we are actually letting the Secretary of State decide on protected areas. I am a politician, and many people here perhaps are politicians, but even I would not trust a politician to decide on that.”
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