A senior Conservative MP who has expressed strong support for fracking is preparing to oppose it in his own constituency in what could be a test case for shale exploration in national parks.
Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, has told constituents he is “very unlikely” to support an application to drill an exploratory well in Fernhurst, West Sussex.
Celtique Energy lodged a draft application yesterday to drill on land near the village in the South Downs National Park. A formal application is expected early next month.
In September, Mr Tyrie wrote to a parish councillor, saying: “I have visited the site, and know the village well.
“I think it is very unlikely that I would find a planning application acceptable in such an environmentally sensitive area, particularly since it would also be very close to a village of 3,000 inhabitants.”
Frack Free Fernhurst, a campaign group set up by residents of the village, said Mr Tyrie had told its members he supported fracking in principle but opposed an “industrial experiment” of this nature in the national park.
He expressed support for fracking while being filmed secretly as part of an undercover investigation by Greenpeace at last year’s Conservative Party conference.
Mr Tyrie was approached by a man who claimed to be representing an anti-wind farm group.
Mr Tyrie said: “I’m with you on that — a complete waste of money.
“What we need is shale,” he said. “That’s why ..... US manufacturing energy import costs have fallen by two thirds. If you reduce energy import costs by two thirds you will have a sharp improvement in economic performance and competitiveness.
“We are a very lucky country — we’re sitting on all this stuff.”
He made clear that he wanted to “unstick the 2020 EU agreement”, in an apparent reference to European targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent and produce 20 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020.
He also said that he was delighted with a speech made at the conference by George Osborne, who promised a “generous new tax regime for shale”. The South Downs National Park Authority said there were already three conventional oil and gas extraction sites in production and two at the exploration stage inside the park .
A spokeswoman said that the application by Celtique would be the first for a new drilling site to be considered by the authority since it was established in 2011 to oversee the new park.
“We cannot pre-judge the decision of our planning committee. Every application has to be considered on its own merits taking into consideration that the national park is a protected landscape,” she said.
Celtique said its “primary objective” in Fernhurst was to explore the potential for conventional oil and gas extraction. It said that it would also test shale formations, however, and if the results were positive it would consider applying for fracking at the site.
The Campaign for National Parks said: “We would not support the use of fracking in National Parks given the potentially significant environmental impacts, including the landscape damage caused by the large number of boreholes required to recover shale gas.”
Lawrence Carter, a Greenpeace energy campaigner, said: “Andrew Tyrie was all in favour of shale gas until he was confronted with the reality of it in his own constituency. His volte-face is a recognition of the fact that fracking has become an electoral liability in the Tory heartlands.”