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Some Tory MPs Suspect Fracking Plans Could Be "Quietly Shelved"

The government has set out its commitment to fracking despite opposition. (Alamy)

6 min read

A growing belief that the government's plans to boost fracking could be quietly shelved has emerged at Conservative party conference in Birmingham after Tory MPs and activists expressed opposition to the plans.

A number of Tory MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome in Birmingham said they did not believe new fracking projects would get off the ground after widespread frustration over the proposals, claiming instead the plans would be "quietly shelved" by ministers just weeks after they were announced.

Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg announced last month that the 2019 moratorium on fracking would be lifted as part of the government's push to improve the UK's energy security, despite a lack of scientific evidence to show the projects would be safe or viable.

Both Prime Minister Liz Truss and Rees-Mogg had insisted no new projects would go ahead without securing the consent of local communities, but faced criticism from Tory MPs after they failed to set out how that process would work.

Addressing Tory members in her first conference speech as prime minister on Wednesday, Truss was interrupted by Greenpeace protesters who objected to the fracking proposals. 

But one Conservative MP with several fracking sites in their constituency, told PoliticsHome that they believed the plans were "dead in the water" anyway.

"I'm not going to make a big fuss in public because I don't think it is necessary," they said.

"The plans are going to be quietly shelved because the party knows it's deeply unpopular and we will play no part in trying to win over local residents because it is utterly pointless. There will never be local consent no matter what is promised, so it's dead in the water."

Another MP told PoliticsHome that while there had been "blowback" from local residents, they were "relaxed" about the response because they also believed the plans would be ditched.

"I've already told my whip I won't vote for it and they didn't seem phased," they said. "It was a Jacob [Rees-Mogg] wheeze and that's it."

Rees-Mogg announced strict seismic limits, which measure the impact on ground movements as a result of the fracking process, could be increased to make it easier for new projects to go ahead.

At a conference event on Monday, Rees-Mogg also said he would be willing to allow fracking projects to go ahead in his own community as he suggested oil and gas companies should "go around, door to door, as politicians do at elections and ask people if they would consent".

Truss's climate adviser Chris Skidmore said last week the industry had been dealt a "death blow" after the founder of fracking company Caudrilla said geological challenges in the UK meant it was unlikely that projects would go ahead in the short-term.

Asked about the plans during a meeting at the party's conference in Birmingham on Tuesday, Conservative MP Bim Afolami said fracking would not reduce the cost of energy in the UK and was "deeply unpopular" in local communities.

"It's not in my area, but there are so many of my colleagues who have been on the record about it for a very long time, and I just don't understand why," he said.

"We have been doing so much great stuff, broadly around energy, and we have gone down this particular rabbit hole which is very minimal in the overall context of the great work that has been going on.

"Unless lots of people in local areas change their mind, I'd be surprised if we get much fracking, so maybe that looks like a misfocus."

Climate minister Graham Stuart, who appeared on the panel alongside Afolami, said there was still work to be done to confirm whether fracking was even "economically viable" but did not believe that the plans would be otherwise damaging to the environment.

"We don't know whether it's going to be economically viable or not to extract, there has been so little done so that work needs to go on," he said. 

"It will need local consent if it's going to happen. I'm quite confident in our regulatory system to ensure that below ground there will be no problems, that we are not going to be poisoning aquifers or anything like that, it will be properly done and it will require community consent to ensure people are content.

"If they can be persuaded and it is economically viable then there is no reason it shouldn't happen, but if they can't be and it's not economically viable then it won't."

Speaking at a conference event on Tuesday, Conservative MP Alex Stafford, who has two fracking sites in his constituency, said he felt the plans were "virtue signalling" and insisted there was little chance of projects going ahead.

"We all know fracking is a bit of a red-herring and I'll be surprised if fracking ever happens in this country, even despite the announcements. So you can virtue signal in one way about fracking but not actually make it happen and it doesn't actually affect our net-zero targets," he said.

"I don't think we should be re-opening this can of worms because I don't see any particular benefit. If fracking does come online it is not going to give us the gas we need, it's going to play into the international market and it's not going to bring down prices."

He added: "On the other hand, if the government make it clear it's about community consent and if the local community want to have it and it's going to have a financial benefit... and if local residents feel they should be able to use one of their local assets to lower their bills should we be telling them not to? In my seat I don't think it will work at all because there is basically no community support."

One Conservative councillor said they were frustrated that ministers had placed a "millstone around the neck" of activists in communities impacted by potential fracking plans.

"It's been a distraction that we could have done without, definitely," they said. 

"It was a really common topic that was coming up with residents for a couple of weeks after the announcement, but we were very honest with them and said that we didn't support it, our MP didn't support it and we'd be right behind the community in opposing it."

"In terms of local reaction, we did have some people who were supportive because they thought it might bring jobs and investment to the community, but they were in a tiny minority.

"The overwhelming response from people, and that includes our supporters too, were dead against it."

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