Chris Matheson has spoken out against plans to build an energy research centre on the outskirts of Chester, saying it could lead to the area becoming a “frackers’ paradise”.

The Chester MP is against plans for a multi-million pound ‘observatory for the underground’, earmarked for Ince Marshes.

The so-called Cheshire Energy Research Field Site would see 80 observation boreholes of various depths drilled across a 28sqkm area around the marshes.

There are fears some of the research carried out there could ultimately pave the way for the controversial practice of fracking – injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks or boreholes to release oil or gas – to come to the region.

Mr Matheson's fellow Labour MPs Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port & Neston) and Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) have also expressed concern about the plans, as has anti-fracking group Frack Free Frodsham and Helsby. 

Mr Matheson said: “The majority of people in Chester have made their mind up on fracking and their safety concerns are my number one priority. I won’t support any project that could lead to a green light being given on the extraction of shale gas in Cheshire.

“In the end, we know any future commercial operations here would cut corners to minimise costs and maximise their profits. That’s why I cannot support opening the door to these companies.

“Additionally, with the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive on their knees due to government cuts from a pro-fracking Tory government, who is going to stop our green and pleasant land becoming a ‘frackers paradise’ that no academic study can take account of?”

Plans for the research centre were announced by the British Geological Survey (BGS), a partly publicly-funded geoscientific body, on Tuesday. The plans are at an early stage and the BGS will consult the public before submitting a planning application.

The investment has been commissioned by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the UK's main agency for funding environmental sciences, and is being delivered by the BGS. Ince Marshes has been selected as the BGS's preferred location for the site, which will provide research evidence on natural resources for heat and energy.

But as North Cheshire has already been targeted by energy firms looking to carry out gas exploration tests, there are fears the research centre could open the door to fracking companies moving into the area for good once more is known about the process. Anti-fracking protest groups say fracking is bad for the environment due to the chemicals and pressures used, and they also say it would lead to the industrialisation of the countryside.

The BGS has said in a statement that “some research will look at how shale gas behaves in the ground”, adding: “The observatory will enable valuable science whether fracking is happening or not.”

The Conservative government has committed to allowing the process of fracking for shale gas in Britain, but they are the only major party to support it. Labour would ban fracking if they were in power and Mr Matheson’s Parliamentary Labour colleagues Mr Madders and Mr Amesbury have this week spoken out against the plans for Ince Marshes.

Mr Madders said:  “I am very concerned that such a large amount of public money is being invested into what is essentially a taxpayer funded survey being carried out to support the fracking industry in this area.

“I am also concerned that as the Member of Parliament for this area, nobody behind these proposals even bothered to talk to me before it was announced to the newspapers. If this is the contempt with which they treat people on day one, I am not confident about the future.

“At a time when we should be looking at developing the next generation of renewable energy, this process is completely the wrong approach. The Cheshire Science Corridor has the potential to be a world leader in the future of green energy, so putting so much focus on fossil fuels represents a big step backwards.” 

Mr Amesbury, whose Weaver Vale constituency borders the marshes, added: “I’ll be asking for an urgent meeting to seek assurances about the nature of the project and will continue to monitor developments in the area closely.  

"Although research into alternative energy sources is needed, many in my constituency will be rightly concerned that this could pave the way for fracking on the borders of Weaver Vale.

"This area has been singled out by energy firms looking to carry out gas exploration tests in the past and the BGS themselves say that some of the research they carry out at this site will look specifically at shale gas. 

"Myself and Labour colleagues have said time and again that fracking is not wanted here, it is intrusive and destructive.”

Campaign group Frack Free Frodsham Helsby said they were "very disappointed" to hear of the announcement from the BGS. 

A statement from the group added: "Any investment in research and development within the science corridor should be focused on the decarbonisation of our industries and the development of renewable energy sources. These would help us achieve the challenging targets set to tackle climate change.

"This new development will not bring any long-term investment and jobs to our area and will divert the minds and energy of the highly qualified scientists and engineers away from work that will ensure our health and environment for generations to come."