Three campaign organisations have taken the first step in a legal challenge to the government’s lifting of the moratorium on fracking in England.
Friends of the Earth, Talk Fracking and Preston New Road Action Group have sent a letter before action to the business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
He announced on 22 September that the moratorium on fracking, in place for almost three years, had been lifted and the government would consider future applications for hydraulic fracturing consent.
The business secretary said more shale gas sites were needed to “gather better data and improve the evidence base”:
“Lifting the pause on shale gas extraction will enable drilling to gather this further data, building an understanding of UK shale gas resources and how we can safely carry out shale gas extraction in the UK where there is local support.”
The letter before action said the Written Ministerial Statement (WMS), which accompanied Mr Rees-Mogg’s announcement, was unlawful and irrational.
It called on the minister to withdraw the document immediately. He should reinstate the previous policy set out in a WMS in November 2019, which introduced the moratorium, the letter said.
The groups said if the business secretary refused to do this, they would then make an application for a judicial review. They set a deadline for a government response of 6pm on Friday 28 October 2022.
Susan Holliday, of Preston New Road Action Group, which opposed Cuadrilla’s fracking site in Lancashire, said:
“Residents living close to the site at Preston New Road know the impacts of fracking and have not forgotten how disruptive it is to their lives.
“Communities like ours should not have to endure the risks that fracking poses to health, wellbeing and our homes, especially when there are safer, more sustainable, alternatives available. We are ready to mount our opposition and see off fracking once again.”
Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said:
“Time and again people have been promised no more fracking unless it could be carried out safely and sustainably, without putting communities at risk of unpredictable earthquakes,” said Mr Rundle.
“The government first made this commitment in 2019, then again as part of its election manifesto and most recently within the British Energy Strategy.
“Despite all this, the business secretary has broken his party’s promise. Fracking for gas is, once again, being put above the wellbeing of communities threatened with it where they live, and the climate which will only deteriorate further if it goes ahead – something none of us can afford.
“We consider this disregard for people and planet, as well as the betrayal of public trust, not only to be dishonest but unlawful. We’ve written to the minister to explain our reasoning and to urge him to reverse this disastrous policy or face legal action.”
Joe Corre, of Talk Fracking, said:
“This government under Liz Truss is completely irresponsible and out of control. Fracking will be another disaster.
“PM Truss is already aware of this due the report by DEFRA when she was in charge at that department. She delayed its publication and then heavily redacted it.
“When the final full report was published due to an FOI legal challenge, it showed what we knew all along: it’s a disaster for the economy, house values, and the environment. An exercise in self-harm.”
The three groups, represented by Leigh Day solicitors, said the previous WMS, issued when the moratorium was imposed in 2019, led to a legitimate expectation that the government would support fracking only if there was compelling new evidence that the process was safe and that concerns about induced seismicity had been addressed.
They said the 2022 WMS did not provide this evidence. It referred only to a review by the British Geological Survey, commissioned by the government. But this did not show that fracking could be done in a safe and sustainable way, they said.
The BGS report was a desk top review only, they said, and it concluded that the ability to evaluate and mitigate risks from seismicity induced by fracking remained a challenge.
The groups said said the 2022 WMS had no lawful basis for departing from the previous commitment. The business secretary could not show that the shift of policy was a proportionate response to a legitimate aim pursued in the public interest, they said.
They also said there should be a public consultation before such a significant policy shift. But this had not happened.
The new WMS also failed to take into account advice on fracking from the government’s climate advisor, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), they said.
The CCC had said the moratorium should not be lifted without an in-depth independent review of the evidence on the climate impact. The groups said there was no evidence that this review had been carried out.
Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day, said:
“The government’s promise could not have been clearer: no fracking, unless proven to be safe. The Secretary of State is still apparently concerned about safety, but has reassured Parliament that fracking can go ahead nonetheless, despite no consultation with local communities affected and no evidence to support that position from either the British Geological Society or the Committee on Climate Change.
“The latter advised that fracking is not compatible with Net Zero, a rather unsafe position to be in, unless certain tests have been met. Yet such tests have been completely ignored by this government. This is why our clients consider that the government has acted unlawfully and have written to ministers to demand a U-turn.”