A TORY peer has apologised after he sparked fury when he suggested the region was ripe for fracking because it is full of “desolate areas”.
Lord Howell of Guildford drew gasps of astonishment from the House of Lords yesterday, for saying the controversial form of gas production could take place in the North East without having any impact on the surrounding environment.
The peer – who is the father-in-law of the Chancellor, George Osborne, and served as energy secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government from 1979 to 1981 – later apologised, insisting he had not meant to insult the region.
“I certainly did not intend to suggest that the North East is desolate and I do not believe it to be the case,” he said.
“There are parts of the country that are less densely inhabited than others. That includes parts of the North East but also other areas in the south of England as well.
“The shale gas industry should be encouraged to develop in a sustainable way where it is appropriate to do so and in way that ensures communities benefit, which could be in many different parts of the country.” Fracking – short for “hydraulic fracturing” – is a process that involves drilling deep underground and releasing a high-pressure mix of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals to crack rocks and release gas which is stored inside.
More than 20 protesters have been arrested in Balcombe, West Sussex, over fears that plans by Cuadrilla, the energy company, to drill for oil in the area will lead to fracking.
During a Lords Questions session, Lord Howell – who was a minister in the Foreign Office responsible for international energy policy between 2010 and 2012 – said: “Would you accept that it could be a mistake to think of and discuss fracking in terms of the whole of the United Kingdom in one go?
“I mean there obviously are, in beautiful natural areas, worries about not just the drilling and the fracking, which I think are exaggerated, but about the trucks, and the delivery, and the roads, and the disturbance, and those about justified worries.”
The peer added: “But there are large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part of the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence where we could conduct without any kind of threat to the rural environment.”
Easington MP Grahame Morris slammed the peer’s comments as “disgraceful”.
“Lord Howell is the head of a lobbying organisation for big oil and gas and he shows a callous disregard for the impact of this process on people and communities in the North East,” he said.
“There are real concerns about the contamination of drinking and water supplies and the consequences on communities such as pollution that this could have.”
Houghton and Sunderland South MP Bridget Phillipson said: “Lord Howell’s ill-informed and ignorant comments again show how little David Cameron’s Tories understand our region. When was the last time he actually visited the North East? He should come and see for himself the beautiful countryside and coastline we enjoy.”
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