Will George Osborne hail the shale gas in his own backyard?
The Chancellor's Tatton seat is ripe for fracking – but his constituents may not share their MP's enthusiasm for the drill
It is what you might describe as the politician's ultimate Nimby dilemma. On the one hand you represent two of the more beautiful constituencies in England's green and pleasant land – with voters well used to protecting it. On the other you're a firm believer in a technology that could ruin them – turning green fields into gas fields with the added bonus of a minor earthquake or two.
That, The Independent can reveal, is the unfortunate quandary facing the Chancellor George Osborne and the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Both have been enthusiastic backers of the Government's "dash for shale gas", which is likely to be confirmed tomorrow when Mr Osborne announces new tax breaks for exploration and an end to the moratorium on potential on-shore gas production.
But a study of maps from the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveals that their constituencies of Tatton and Shropshire North sit right above some of the potentially most lucrative gas fields in England.
If the predictions prove to be right, it means the sound of drilling may soon be competing with birdsong. George Osborne's constituency of Tatton in Cheshire, for example, despite being a safe Tory seat, has form for kicking out errant MPs – famously ejecting Neil Hamilton in favour of the TV journalist Martin Bell in 1997. They also have form for environmental campaigning. A vociferous protest continues against plans to build an adventure playground in Tatton Park. What hope then for Mr Osborne's dream of gas wells scattered around the country, unlocking what he has describes as "the newly discovered shale gas reserves beneath our land"?
Mr Paterson is no more fortunate. Dr Johnson described Shropshire North, home to many rare and protected species of flora and fauna and designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, as "a region abounding with striking scenes and terrific grandeur". But then, if the Environment Secretary gets his way, that could be replaced with shale gas plants which he once described as "God given". "I do think we should not be frightened of shale gas and not be alarmed, of which a lot of is exaggerated," he has said.
Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for Fylde in Lancashire, has an early experience of the potential local backlash against fracking, after drilling by the shale gas company Cuadrilla caused two small earthquakes in his constituency near Blackpool. He has been inundated with objections from residents and has raised those on several occasions in the Commons. Mr Menzies said it was vital for stronger independent regulation and transparency before any further licences were handed out. "We are not like the United States with vast swathes of uninhabited land," he said. "I think the only way that fracking can be done in Britain is on a very small scale." So what will Mssrs Osborne and Paterson do? Mr Paterson remains unrepentant. He said the potential drilling site was very close to his home in the constituency and with the appropriate environmental safeguards he was happy for it to go ahead. "This is an exciting, totally new opportunity to bring wealth and development to rural communities," he said yesterday. "But importantly the quality of environmental regulation stays the same."
However whether his constituents agree is another matter.
Greenpeace sound like they are relishing the men's potential discomfort. "It will be interesting to see whether George Osborne's rush for shale gas exploration in the English countryside causes a backlash from his own constituents in Tatton, when they learn fracking rigs could be erected in their backyard," said Leila Deen, an energy campaigner at the environmental group.
"I suspect there are a number of MPs with rural constituencies from all the political parties who are feeling very apprehensive about Osborne's gamble with gas."
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