Liz Truss faces a political backlash after lifting England’s fracking ban, with anger from Tory MPs and the threat that opposition parties will use the excuse to drum up support in key electoral battlegrounds.
Business and Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said the impact of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means securing domestic energy supplies is vital.
The moratorium on fracking had been in place since 2019 following a series of earth tremors and Conservatives representing seats in northern England hit out at the move to end it, which breaks a 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.
But Mr Rees-Mogg said 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 Mr 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) suggested more data was needed, but despite the lack of scientific progress Ms Truss’s administration has torn up the manifesto commitment.
A Number 10 spokeswoman on Thursday rejected the suggestion that the Prime Minister sees the 2019 manifesto as redundant.
Mr 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.
Mr Rees-Mogg said 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, Mr 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 Mr 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.”
He demanded to know how consent would be sought for developments, but Mr Rees-Mogg suggested 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 argued 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.”
She added: “If people suffer polluted water and dangerous earthquakes, this decision will prove unforgivable.”
Fracking firm Cuadrilla, which operates the Preston New Road site, welcomed the announcement.
Chief executive Francis Egan said: “Communities across the North of England stand to benefit most from today’s announcement.
“Cuadrilla is determined that a portion of all shale gas revenue should be delivered to local residents as a community dividend. This would mean each producing shale gas site could generate potentially hundreds of millions of pounds for local households, families and communities.”
But 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.”