FRACKING for shale gas across the whole of the UK has been blocked after the UK Government was forced to abandon attempts to push it through on Monday night.
In a spectacular last minute U-turn to save the government’s Infrastructure Bill, Lib Dem energy secretary Ed Davey accepted a Labour amendment which stops fracking until 13 environmental loopholes in the shale gas regulations are closed.
With anti-fracking protesters gathered outside parliament, the government also accepted an outright ban on fracking in areas of natural beauty and National Parks.
However, an attempt by Labour to force the government to hand over power on fracking immediately to Holyrood - which was agreed by all parties on the Smith Commission - failed by almost 100 votes.
Among the protesters were human rights activist Bianca Jagger who accused David Cameron of “scaremongering” over the number of jobs the UK could miss out on if it does not commit to shale gas drilling.
The former actress said the government should invest in renewable energy and warned fracking was a “real danger” to the environment.
“Look at Germany, look at all the jobs that Germany has created with renewable energy. Instead of investing in fracking, which I don’t see will benefit the average person in this country, we should be investing in renewable energy,” she said.
But in a boost for the north east of Scotland, new measures to support oil and gas exploration in the North Sea recommended in Sir Ian Wood’s review have been accepted.
The cave-in by ministers on fracking came after it became clear that it would be defeated on an amendment tabled by Rutherglen MP and shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex.
The government was facing a massive backbench rebellion from both Lib Dem and Tory MPs including former environment secretary Caroline Spelman and Tory environment select committee chairwoman Anne McIntosh who intended to back Labour.
The rebellion was set to equal ones already suffered by the coalition on tuition fees, the House of Lords, gay marriage and Europe.
The block on fracking is a major blow to Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne who has personally pushed fracking as the means of providing cheap fuel for Britain and was urging for it to be fast tracked just 24 hours before the vote.
Ahead of the debate, Mr Cameron Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to see the UK copy the US on fracking, with local communities benefiting from local business rates and employment.
He said: “I want to see unconventional gas properly exploited in our country. I think there are good reasons for doing this - we want to have greater energy security, we want to keep prices down, we also want to tackle climate change.”
The uncontested amendment means that the government has adopted Labour’s shale gas policy and will have to bring in new environmental regulations before fracking can be allowed.
An earlier SNP backed amendment for a time limited moratorium of 18 to 30 months failed because of concerns that it was only time limited and did not put any conditions on the government to strengthen the regulations.
Mr Greatrex said: “This is a huge U-turn by the Government and big victory for the protection of Britain’s environment.
“We have dispelled the nonsense that fracking is some sort of energy silver bullet that is going to solve all our problems.”
He went on: “Scottish Labour has always said that shale gas extraction cannot go ahead unless there is a system of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection, but David Cameron has repeatedly ignored people’s genuine and legitimate environmental concerns over shale gas.
“Now, thanks to Labour’s amendment, the Government has been forced to accept that tough protections and proper safeguards must be in place before fracking can go ahead.”
He said that the delay now puts the onus on SNP ministers in Holyrood to say how they will control fracking in Scotland when it is devolved.
Scottish Labour has offered a triple lock of planning, environmental regulations and a local referendum before exploration could begin.
However, there are reports of divisions within the Scottish Government with energy minister Fergus Ewing said to be in favour of fracking but senior backbencher Joan McAlpine against.
Mr Greatrex said: “Attention must now turn to the Scottish Government, who can block shale gas in Scotland if they choose.
“The SNP in Holyrood have always had control over the planning and permitting regime, giving them an effective veto over any developments. Their silence on these existing powers is telling
“While eight out of 10 homes still rely on gas for heating, shale gas may have a role to play in displacing some of the gas we currently import and improving our energy security. But that potential benefit cannot come at the expense of robust environmental protections or our climate change commitments.”
However, the SNP insisted that Labour had failed to stop fracking properly by not backing their amendment for a time limited moratorium.
SNP energy spokesman Mike Weir MP said: “Scottish Labour have been found out.
“Their pathetic motion did not involve a moratorium, and did not even apply to Scotland.
“The SNP support a UK moratorium to ensure that no more licences for fracking are granted before full powers over licensing are transferred to the Scottish Parliament.”
He added: “Scottish energy minister Fergus Ewing has written to the UK Government asking them not to issue any more licences in Scotland, but this vote could have forced them to stop.
“This would have ensured that the Tory days of gung-ho fracking policies come to an end in Scotland and we could develop our own system when powers are devolved.”
Friends of the Earth said it was disappointed the amendment it drafted for an 18 to 30 month moratorium failed.
A spokesman said: “It’s great news that SNP MPs voted and spoke up in favour of protecting communities and the environment from the unconventional gas and fracking industry. It was a surprise that Scottish Labour MPs seem to have mostly abstained, given the party’s new commitments over the weekend.”
The scale of the UK government defeat was highlighted by claims made by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) up to the last minute that it had dealt with the regulations.
Over the weekend a DECC spokesman said: “We are confident that our existing robust regulation will protect residents, the environment and the landscape for exploration.”
But ministers were rattled by a unanimous report by the cross party Environmental Audit Committee which described its fracking plans as dangerous for environment and “undemocratic”.
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