The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has ordered a scientific review of the impact of fracking.
The announcement comes as the government prepares to publish its energy security strategy later this week.
It follows pressure from a small number of Conservative MPs for a lifting of the moratorium on fracking.
The operation was suspended in England in November 2019 after fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire caused a series of earthquakes.
They included a seismic event measuring 2.9ML, the UK largest induced earthquake. The British Geological Survey (BGS) received nearly 200 complaints of damage to property from that event.
Since then, ministers repeatedly said they would not lift the moratorium without compelling new evidence that fracking could be done safely and sustainably.
Today, Mr Kwarteng said:
“Unless the latest scientific evidence demonstrates that shale gas extraction is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby, the pause in England will remain in place.”
He said fracking in England would “take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of gas could be produced for the market, and would certainly have no effect on prices in the near term.”
But he said:
“There will continue to be an ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming decades as we transition to cheap renewable energy and new nuclear power. In light of Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, it is absolutely right that we explore all possible domestic energy sources.”
The review announcement follows a U-turn last week by the shale gas regulator, which had required Cuadrilla to plug and abandon its Preston New Road wells by the end of June 2022. The order was then lifted and the company now has until June 2023 to produce “credible reuse plans” for the wells.
The review, to be carried out by the BGS, is due to be completed by June 2022.
In a letter to the BGS, Mr Kwarteng made it clear the review would be desk-based and not involve any drilling or seismic monitoring. The BGS was asked to investigate:
- new developments in the science of hydraulic fracturing or new techniques that would reduce the risk and magnitude of seismic events
- new techniques that would be suitable for use in fracturing in UK geology and high population density
- how seismicity caused by fracturing compares with other forms of underground energy production, such as geothermal and coal mining, or surface activities such as construction
- Whether safe thresholds for these activities remain the correct ones and that any differences are justified
- how geological modelling has improved since the moratorium in November 2019 and whether ministers could be completely confident about modelling of seismic events
- whether there are other sites, outside Lancashire, which might be at a lower risk of seismic activity
- what level of confidence government would have in an assessment of seismic activity in these areas
Claire Stephenson, of Frack Free Lancashire, which campaigned against Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road operation, said:
“Carrying out a review of fracking seems entirely futile, after over 10 years of attempts in the UK to make an industry. Cuadrilla tried – and failed – in Lancashire, to frack on a commercial level. The seismicity that was produced by fracking at Preston New Road, and previously, Preese Hall, is unable to be controlled nor mitigated. This is unacceptable to communities who are forced to endure this dirty industry.
“Our community and local democracy in Lancashire said no to fracking, yet this was overruled by the central government, who decided they knew best.
“Aside from the major climate risks, such as uncontrollable methane leaks that come with fracking, it will not make any difference to the current energy crisis. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, that humanity is on a “fast track to climate disaster” and accused some governments and businesses of “lying” and those countries who are upping their fossil fuel production are the ‘truly dangerous radicals’.
“The government should be focussing on renewable and quick-to-launch energy sources like wind power, instead of listening to noisy climate change denying backbench ministers who are stuck in the past with outdated energy sources.”
Susan Holliday, from Preston New Road Action Group, said
“It seems ridiculous that the government are spending more money and time doing a review on fracking. They should be concentrating on sustainable energy which has a future, rather than throwing more at fossil fuels which should be being phased out.
“Attempts to frack on the Fylde Coast has shown that it cannot be done here without causing seismic events. The geology around the Preston New Road site has not changed since the moratorium was introduced.
“If this review suddenly decides that fracking can be done safely, it will lead us to question how a desk based review can suddenly over ride the evidence that was gathered at Preston New Road. We have lived through the seismic events caused by fracking and know the impacts. Can the people doing the review say the same?”
Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, Danny Gross, said:
“We don’t need a review to know that fracking is not the answer to our energy needs. The idea that shale gas extraction will significantly lower energy bills or improve energy security is pure fantasy.
“Fracking has been deeply unpopular with communities that have faced the prospect of shale gas extraction. They have stopped fracking once and, if necessary, they’ll stop it again.
“Energy efficiency and developing the UK’s vast renewable power potential are the best ways to deal with the energy crisis and bring down soaring fuel bills – and this must be the focus of the government’s upcoming energy review.”
Stephen Bowler, chief executive of the would-be fracking company, IGas, said:
“This is a significant development by the Government and we welcome the opportunity to demonstrate how shale gas can provide safe, secure and affordable energy for the UK.
“With Government support to rapidly accelerate the development of this strategic national resource, the IGas Board believes it can make this vital, indigenous supply of energy available to British consumers and businesses in a short timeframe.”
IGas has abandoned two shale gas exploration site in Nottingham. One, Tinker Lane, failed to find the Bowland Shale. The other, at Springs Road, Misson, was refused planning permission last year and is due to be restored.
“Gas has a key role to play to ensure our future energy supply is secure, affordable and as low carbon as is economically possible. It is used to heat over 80% of homes and by over 60% of the UK’s population for cooking. Whilst renewable sources of energy are increasingly producing a greater share of our electricity, gas still provides c.40%.
“UK shale gas resources can replace imports, reduce prices, boost the country’s tax revenues, and lead to job creation in areas where they are most needed to support the Government’s levelling up agenda.”
James Murray, editor in chief of Business Green, tweeted:
“spending time and money to review evidence on fracking tremors that has not meaningfully changed, not because Number 10 is seriously considering lifting the ban this side of an election to keep Jacob [Rees-Mogg] quiet.