Liz Truss has lifted the ban on fracking in a Conservative Party manifesto U-turn as part of new plans to curb soaring energy bills.
“It is vital that we take steps to increase our domestic energy supply,” she told parliament. “We will end the moratorium on extracting our huge reserves of shale which could get gas flowing as soon as six months where there is local support for it.”
The prime minister has also announced a new licensing round for new North Sea oil and gas, she expects more than 100 licenses to be awarded.
A ban on fracking was announced in England in 2019 after a report by the Oil and Gas Authority found it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations.
Then in the Conservative party manifesto, the party promised “not to support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.
Fracking is the process of extracting shale gas by fracturing rocks with a mixutre of water, sand and chemicals at a high pressure.
Earlier this year, the then-business secretary now chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng wrote to the British Geological Survey commissioning a report into whether there were any new scientific developments that could reduce the risk and magnitude of seismic events.
Officials said the British Geological Survey report will be published on Thursday and will find that more drilling is needed to establish data on shale deposits and seismic impacts.
The United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas industry body told The Independent that the five shale gas companies in the UK - INEOS, Cuadrilla, Aurora, Egdon and iGas - are still keen to pursue shale gas development in the UK.
Experts say it is in fact unclear how much gas there is under our feet, despite Ms Truss saying there are “huge reserves.”
“No-one knows what the total volume of gas is, or – critically – what fraction of that can be produced commercially,” Andrew Aplin, of the department of earth sciences at Durham University, told The Independent. “Recent work has suggested that initial estimates by the British Geological Survey were too high, but until many wells are drilled over large areas of northern England, we can’t know the potential volumes with any certainty.”
There is also a lack of consensus as to whether it’s realistic that gas could start flowing as soon as six months where there is local support.
According to the government’s own surveys, fracking is unpopular, with the most recent public attitudes tracker, published in autumn last year, showing 44 per cent of people strongly opposed it, compared to 17 per cent of people who were in support.
Some 39 per cent of people said they neither supported nor opposed it or didn’t know.
Officials said the government will consider discounts on bills for areas that accept fracking, but that no decision has been made yet.
The Climate Change Committee has said fracking for shale gas on a significant scale is not compatible with the UK’s climate targets, unless three key tests are met. The first is that emissions must be strictly limited during the development, production and decommissioning of the wells, the second is that overall gas consumption must remain in line with UK climate targets, and the third is that the extraction must be factored into our path to net zero.
Ms Truss said the country needed to ramp up the supply of energy. In order to do so, she said she was creating a new Energy Supply Taskforce to negotiate new long-term energy contracts with domestic and international suppliers, and accelerating all sources of domestic energy. She said she wanted the UK to be a net energy exporter by 2040.
Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said the decision was “a massive kick in the teeth for [the] vast majority of communities who don’t want fracking, a disaster for our climate, and a measure that will make absolutely zero difference to the cost of energy bills.”
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey, said lifting the ban on fracking would do nothing to change the sky-high price of energy.
“The government should be focusing its attention on solar and wind power the cheapest and most popular forms of energy,” he said. “Alongside insulation, investment in renewable power is the best way to bring down energy prices and protect Britain’s energy supply in the long term.”
Ms Truss did say the country will speed up the deployment of all clean and renewable technologies including hydrogen, solar, carbon capture and storage and wind, adding that she was “completely” committed to net zero by 2050.
She also promised a review of the net zero 2050 target, led by Tory MP Chris Skidmore MP, saying she wanted to ensure we deliver the landmark pledge “in a way that is pro-business and pro-growth”.
Mike Childs, head of science, policy and research at environmental campaigners, Friends of the Earth, said the government’s energy plan was detached from reality.
“It does nothing to tackle the root cause of the energy crisis – our reliance on costly, polluting fossil fuels – and only lines the pockets of the oil and gas companies driving the cost of living and climate emergencies,” he said. “To bring down bills for good, we need a street-by-street insulation programme targeted at the neighbourhoods where most homes are poorly insulated.”
Jess Ralson, a senior analyst with the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said with fracking rigs likely to be opposed by local communities, the announcement risked diverting focus from efficiency and renewables which can be quick to introduce and are popular.
“To bring down bills we need to use less gas by investing in insulating homes, a measure which could be cost neutral to the Treasury given it will spend billions on the price cap freeze,” she said.