Britain lifts ban on fracking despite uncertainty over earthquake risks

Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg says UK must 'pursue all means' to increase energy supplies

A fracking site in Lancashire, England, before a moratorium on drilling was announced in 2019. PA
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Britain on Thursday lifted its ban on drilling for shale gas, saying the country must “pursue all means” to boost its energy supplies at a time of global crisis.

Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said fracking at home was preferable to importing liquefied gas from abroad, despite concerns that onshore drilling can trigger earthquakes.

Ministers published a review by the British Geological Survey, which said understanding of the seismic risks remained limited, with only three test wells having been explored for shale gas in Britain.

But “tolerating a higher degree of risk and disturbance appears to us to be in the national interest” at a time of high gas prices linked to the war in Ukraine, said Mr Rees-Mogg, who said that “much has changed” since the ban came in.

“The government remains committed to net zero by 2050, but we have to get there, and to get there we are going to need oil and gas. And domestic sources of gas clearly have a lower climate impact than shipping liquefied natural gas by tankers halfway across the world,” he said.

“Under these circumstances, HM government considers it appropriate to pursue all means for increasing UK gas production, including shale gas extraction.”

The government also announced the next steps towards increasing oil and gas production from the North Sea, with regulators expected to hand out more than 100 new licences beginning next month.

A spokesman for the North Sea Transition Authority said officials would "move at pace" to begin the next round of licensing.

Several extra sections of Britain’s continental shelf will be made available for drilling as the UK pushes for energy independence after the turmoil caused by Russia in Europe’s energy markets.

North Sea oil and gas drilling is set to increase in Britain's push for energy independence. Reuters

Although Britain imports little gas directly from Russia, the energy squeeze across Europe means high prices have inevitably filtered through to the UK.

Prime Minister Liz Truss told a forum of business leaders in New York on Tuesday that Britain would strive to be a net energy exporter by 2040 so that “we will never be in this situation again”.

Opposition MPs and environmental groups have criticised the return of fracking, which was suspended indefinitely in 2019 after ministers said tremors could not be accurately predicted.

Labour’s climate change spokesman Ed Miliband, a former party leader, called it a “dangerous fantasy” that would cost more than renewables and broke a Conservative promise from the last election.

The Conservative election manifesto in 2019 said fracking would not be revived “unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.

A shale gas exploration site in Lancashire, England. PA

Boris Johnson’s government told geologists to reassess the situation in April, but their 51-page report was inconclusive and said forecasting earthquakes was "complex and remains a scientific challenge”.

Fracking is widespread in the United States but scientists said it was difficult to compare the seismic effects in Britain to North America because of the limited data available from the UK.

The report makes no conclusions on whether fracking should resume, said the British Geological Survey, which handed it to ministers in July.

However, Mr Rees-Mogg said it showed that more exploratory wells were needed so that the risks could be better understood.

Some developers have already expressed interest in exploring new wells, the government said, with drilling potentially set to resume within months.

Ms Truss confirmed on September 8 that the change was coming but the announcement was swiftly overshadowed by the death of Queen Elizabeth II that day.

Updated: September 22, 2022, 10:42 AM