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David Cameron’s claim to lead the “greenest government ever” was thrown into the heart of the Labour leadership contest last night, amid concern about plans for a deep-sea drilling operation in the North Sea.

David Miliband, one of the candidates to succeed Gordon Brown as Labour leader, said the coalition’s refusal to impose a moratorium on deep-sea drilling in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster exposed its commitment to the environment as “nothing but spin”.

He said: “Since the election the Government has gone out of its way to ditch, delay and stall key environmental policies. Cameron’s claim that he would create the greenest government ever has turned out to be ‘greenwash’ of the highest order. Worse still, the Lib Dems have stood by and watched this happen – betraying those supporters who hoped they would bring a stronger shade of green to the Tory government.”

BP is expected to begin exploratory drilling at depths of 4,265ft west of the Shetland Isles in October. The Deepwater Horizon rig – which exploded in April causing the US’s worst offshore oil spill in history – was drilling at a depth of around 5,000ft. Paul King, the UK North Sea division managing director at Transocean, the drilling contractor for Deepwater Horizon, will be grilled by MPs on Tuesday as part of a parliamentary inquiry into the risks posed to the UK’s waters.

Greenpeace lawyers have threatened legal action if the Government fails to halt deep-sea drilling, though the Department for Energy and Climate Change insists that the UK’s regulatory regime is among the tightest in the world. Joss Garman, of Greenpeace, said: “After the Gulf disaster, reducing our dependence on oil is the new frontline for the environmental movement, and David Miliband’s call for the UK to follow Obama and introduce a moratorium on deep-sea drilling is a major development in the political debate around oil.”

Keith Allott, the head of climate change for WWF-UK, said: “The Government needs to get its priorities straight. It is only sensible to be having at least a temporary moratorium on oil and gas exploration while the Government learns from the Gulf of Mexico. Instead it seems the priority is to facilitate further expansion of oil and gas in the North Sea, rather than lay the foundations of a green energy revolution.”

But Mr Miliband’s decision to highlight his year-long experience as Environment Secretary in a final drive for the leadership risks backfiring, with the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, countering that Labour’s record amounted to a catalogue of “lost opportunities”.

In a sharp rebuke of the claims, Mr Huhne said: “David Miliband was Environment Secretary under a Labour government when carbon emissions went up, green taxes went down, flood defences were cut, research into climate change was cut and British householders continued to pay hundreds of pounds a year extra heating their homes because of failed government building standards and programmes.”

The Independent on Sunday, 5 September 2010