Liz Truss’s government has formally lifted a ban on fracking for shale gas despite the lack of safety data, saying it was “absolute priority” to boost energy supply.
Business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said all sources of energy needed to be explored “so it’s right that we’ve lifted the pause to realise any potential sources of domestic gas”.
The new licensing round is expected to lead to over 100 new licences, the business department announced on Thursday – despite conceding that there was still a need to “gather better data” on safety.
A moratorium was imposed on fracking in 2019 after the industry regulator said it was not possible to predict the magnitude of earthquakes it might trigger.
A review of acceptable levels of seismic activity said on Thursday that limited exploration to date meant understanding of the risks was limited – but government said that ending the ban would allow drilling to restart and more data to be gathered.
Despite concerns about earthquakes, Mr Rees-Mogg suggested higher levels of seismic activity would be allowed at drilling sites – saying the current limit of 0.5 on the Richter scale was “too low”.
“The seismic limits will be reviewed to see a proportionate level. 0.5 on the Richter scale, which is only noticeable with sophisticated machinery, it is quite right that fracking would not take place – that level is too low,” he told BBC Newsnight.
Ms Truss defended the idea of potentially breaching a Tory manifesto pledge by lifting the ban on fracking, claiming the energy crisis is the “number one issue we face”.
The prime minister insisted she will not authorise “anything that carries a risk”, but the government is yet to produce evidence showing hydraulic shale gas extraction is safe.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged not to lift England’s moratorium unless fracking was scientifically proven to be safe amid concerns over earthquakes.
The PM told reporters travelling with her during a UN summit in New York: “We will not be going ahead with anything that carries a risk but I’m clear that energy security is vital.”
However, senior government adviser Lord Debden told The Independent there is no evidence that if the UK maximised fracking and North Sea extraction that it would have a meaningful impact on the international price of gas.
Environmental groups hit out at the government move to lift the ban, with Greenpeace energy security campaigner Philip Evans warning that drilling for more fossil fuels “will not lower bills, make us less dependent on volatile fossil fuel markets or cut our carbon emissions”.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Danny Gross said fracking was the most unpopular and least effective way of generating energy in the UK, and said any attempt to water down the rules that safeguarded against the process would “only fuel its unpopularity”.
Analysis by Friends of the Earth suggested 91 of England’s 333 local authorities have oil and gas exploration licences. Some 143 parliamentary constituencies, mainly in northern England and the Midlands have licences which could potentially allow firms to examine gas reserves.