Fracking ban lifted but Tories unsettled by seismic shift in policy
Business and energy secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg announced the end of the moratorium on fracking in the UK, but faced an immediate political backlash from all parties, including prominent Tory MPs.
Liz Truss' unpopular decision to approve the lifting of England’s fracking ban has caused anger from Tory MPs, compounded by the threat from opposition parties that they will use this issue to drum up support in key electoral battlegrounds.
Rees-Mogg claimed that the impact of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means that securing domestic energy supplies is now vital.
The moratorium on fracking had been in place since 2019 following a series of earth tremors. Conservatives representing seats in northern England hit out at the move to end the ban, which unequivocally breaks a clear Tory manifesto promise.
Labour said the Truss government had created a “charter for earthquakes” while the Liberal Democrats said voters in rural areas were being treated as “guinea pigs” for the fracking industry.
Rees-Mogg insisted that fracking was in the national interest and would make the country richer. He suggested current limits on acceptable levels of seismic activity are too restrictive and said the government is determined to “realise any potential sources of domestic gas”.
Regulations require work to stop if tremors above 0.5 on the Richter scale are detected, but Rees-Mogg said he wanted that lifted potentially to 2.5, telling MPs: “There are millions of seismic events of 2.5 or lower in the world every year, we should not assume that every seismic event is the San Francisco earthquake.”
Fracking is the process of hydraulic fracturing, which uses high-pressure liquid to release gas from shale formations. The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged not to lift England’s moratorium unless “the science shows categorically it can be done safely”.
A government-commissioned report by the British Geological Survey (BGS) has already suggested that more data is needed, but despite the lack of scientific progress Truss’ administration has opted to sidestep the manifesto commitment.
As recently as April this year, the claims that fracking would reduce heating bills were dismissed by the current chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, when he was business secretary.
In a letter to the BGS, Kwarteng said it was “not the solution to near-term price issues”. In February, he also tweeted: “Additional UK production won’t materially affect the wholesale market price. This includes fracking – UK producers won’t sell shale gas to UK consumers below the market price. They’re not charities.”
Speaking in the Commons today, Rees-Mogg said: “In light of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and weaponisation of energy, strengthening our energy security is an absolute priority and, as the Prime Minister said, we are going to ensure the UK is a net energy exporter by 2040.
“To get there we will need to explore all avenues available to us through solar, wind, oil and gas production – so it’s right that we’ve lifted the pause to realise any potential sources of domestic gas.”
Future applications will be considered where there is local support, although it is not clear how that will be measured, while developers will need to have the necessary licences, permissions and consents in place before they can commence operations.
Rees-Mogg – who owns a townhouse in London and a substantial manor house in North Somerset, his constituency – said that while the government will “always try to limit disturbance” to those living and working near to fracking sites, “tolerating a higher degree of risk and disturbance appears to us to be in the national interest”.
In the Commons, Rees-Mogg was confronted with anger from Tory MPs in areas where fracking could occur.
East Yorkshire MP Sir Greg Knight told him that forecast earthquakes as a result of fracking remained a challenge for experts, adding: “The safety of the public is not a currency in which some of us choose to speculate.”
After Rees-Mogg suggested it was “sheer Ludditery” to oppose fracking, Fylde’s Tory MP Mark Menzies shot back: “There’s nothing Luddite about the people of Lancashire or Fylde.”
Menzies demanded to know how consent would be sought for developments, to which Rees-Mogg had no answer other than suggesting it would be for fracking firms to offer compensation packages to “make what they are proposing to do welcome to local communities”.
The BGS review concluded that forecasting the occurrence of large earthquakes and their expected magnitude is complex and remains a scientific challenge. The government now argues that limited understanding should not be a barrier to fracking, but instead a reason to drill more wells to gather further data.
The moratorium was imposed on fracking after a series of earthquakes at the UK’s only shale wells at Preston New Road, Lancashire, in 2019. There are potential shale reserves across northern England, but fracking firms could also seek to drill in southern areas where gas might be found.
Shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said: “Let me tell the party opposite: we will hang this broken promise around their necks in every part of the country between now and the next general election.”
Liberal Democrat environment spokeswoman Wera Hobhouse said: “From Surrey to Somerset, the government are treating people in rural areas like guinea pigs. If people suffer polluted water and dangerous earthquakes, this decision will prove unforgivable.”
SNP business spokesperson Stephen Flynn told the Commons: “There can be no doubt that this particular political earthquake is absolutely bonkers. In Scotland there will be no change. We, unlike the Tories, stick to our word”.
Rees-Mogg – who studied history, not geology, at Oxford – also dismissed comments from the founder of fracking company Caudrilla.
In an interview with The Guardian, published yesterday, Chris Cornelius – the geologist who founded Cuadrilla Resources, which drilled the UK’s first modern hydraulic fracturing wells in Lancashire – said that he believes the geology in the UK is too challenging for fracking to be successful at any meaningful scale and that the government’s new-found zeal for fracking is merely a “political gesture” to provide "soundbites".
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said in the Commons: “I’m fascinated that the Secretary of State thinks that he knows more about the geology of the UK than the geologist who founded Caudrilla.”
Lucas said there “isn’t any support from local communities”, adding “this terrible and deeply unpopular decision coincides with the government’s draconian anti-protest laws”.
Rees-Mogg replied: "In relation to Caudrilla, the gentleman in question, I believe, left the company 10 years ago, so he is somewhat out of date in terms of the company that he purports to represent. The current management of Caudrilla are in favour of this.”
Labour former minister Dame Angela Eagle responded: “I take it a bit rich from the self-styled minister for the 19th-century that he thinks the CEO of Caudrilla is out of date.”
Katie White, from conservation group WWF, said: “Today’s fracking announcement is a clear breach of a manifesto promise and has no scientific, economic or environmental legs to stand on. Energy security will not be strengthened by fracking or digging up more dirty oil and gas from the North Sea. Our reliance on destructive fossil fuels is the reason we’re grappling with the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation.
“Our leaders must prioritise cutting costs and future-proofing our energy system by investing in energy efficiency and homegrown renewables, while also protecting our desperately vulnerable natural world. Breaking climate promises will be this government’s biggest betrayal to future generations – and won’t be forgotten or forgiven.”
Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay described fracking as an “expensive and dangerous distraction” from the need to invest in home insulation and renewable energy.
“Fracking will deepen our country’s dependence on fossil fuels,” he said. “It will not bring down fuel bills for people who are struggling and will cause more damage to local communities and to the climate.”
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