FRACKING has the potential to ruin wildlife habitats, says research commissioned by leading countryside groups. Business Editor Andy Richardson asked former Energy Minister Charles Hendry if the demand for cheap energy is about to destroy our green spaces. 

WOULD you be happy to have a fracking development in your village? That was the question I asked former energy minister Charles Hendry shortly after he addressed this year’s NOF (Northern Offshore Federation) Energy Conference, held yesterday at Gateshead’s Hilton Hotel.

Environmentalists claim there is indisputable evidence that fracking, which involves pumping liquid at high pressure into rock to fracture it and release gas, causes air and water pollution and leads to earth tremors.

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The 400 people who attended the NOF Energy event heard how the Government and industry say it is safe and will create jobs, but more work is needed to prove its viability in this country.

This week, a report called Are We Fit to Frack? was published, backed by organisations including the National Trust and the RSPB.

It was reviewed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and supported by a cross-party group of MPs.

It proposed to limit the potential impact of fracking to include setting up so-called “no-frack zones” around the UK’s most sensitive conservation areas, protecting the likes of the North York Moors and Northumberland National Parks.

“I have always been clear as a minister that I couldn’t say shale gas exploration is fine for the North, but please don’t do it in Sussex,” said Mr Hendry.

“There may be areas, such as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, where you can’t do much development now anyway, and fracking would come under the same restrictions.”

Mr Hendry, MP for Wealden, East Sussex, bought Blair Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, as a second home in 2011. Critics accused the then climate change minister of hypocrisy, saying the house and swimming pool would use large amounts of energy.

Asked if Mr Hendry would welcome a fracking site next to his home or constituency, he replied: “Yes, if it was done to the highest standards of safety, and done in a way that delivered real community benefits then I think we can see that it offers genuine potential.

“What we need to do is sort the genuine concerns from the spurious.

“There needs to be strong environmental and safety protection so the issues raised in this report about the impact on nature and cross contamination of water are addressed in a comprehensive and robust way.

“A lot of work still needs to be done before we get there.

“I am sure that we can do it here in the UK. We already adhere to the strongest regulatory standards offshore in the North Sea, so there is every reason to believe that we can do that onshore as well.”

Mr Hendry has come under fire for accepting positions with overseas energy companies, most recently a reported £60,000-a-year consultancy role with oil trader Vitol. The role has been cleared by the Westminster watchdog that polices former ministers’ outside interests.

Mr Hendry has also acted as adviser to the Atlantic Supergrid Corporation, which plans to import power to the UK via an undersea cable from Iceland.

David Cameron’s Government signed an energy pact with Iceland while Mr Hendry was climate change minister.

Asked if his involvement with energy firms influenced his views on policy, The Wealden MP replied: “If I thought there was a conflict of interest I wouldn’t do it.”