Government moves to lift fracking ban in England

The government has today officially confirmed plans to lift the ban on fracking for shale gas in England and launch a new oil and gas licensing round in the North Sea, in a move that will spark an angry response from environmental campaigners and concern across the clean energy sector.

In a statement from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the government said it was “appropriate to pursue all means for increasing UK oil and gas production” in order to boost the UK’s energy security in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and weaponisation of energy supplies.

The government said the new licensing round and the decision to lift the moratorium on shale gas production in areas “where there is local support” would help it achieve its ambition to make the UK a net energy exporter by 2040.

“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,” said Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg. “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.”

The government anticipates the new licensing offshore oil and gas licensing round could lead to more than 100 new oil and gas licenses, as well as a number of new ‘blocks’ of the UK Continental Shelf being made available to applicants.

However, companies looking to establish new oil and gas projects will have to meet the requirements of the UK’s Climate Compatibility Checkpoint, the design of which is expected to be officially unveiled this morning.

To get the green light, offshore oil and gas projects are expected to have to meet three tests: two governing their emissions and one focused on whether the project will affect the UK’s status as an importer of oil and gas.

Campaigners have consistently warned that boosting the UK’s supplies of oil and gas will keep businesses and consumers exposed to volatile and expensive oil and gas prices for many years to come and will fail to shore up energy supplies in the near term, given the long lead time of fossil fuel projects.

They have also raised concern that a major increase in oil and gas supplies will be difficult to square with legally binding emissions goals – a challenge that is made even harder by the government’s continued failure to deliver new carbon capture and storage projects.

However, with the UK’s economy been among the worst hit by spiralling energy costs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to its heavy reliance on gas for heating and its relatively inefficient homes, the government has insisted it is appropriate to pursue an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy.

In its announcement this morning, the government conceded that scaling up renewables, nuclear and lower carbon energy sources would “boost energy security in the long-term” and reduce the nation’s exposure to fossil fuel prices “set by global markets outside our global control”.

But it insisted that domestic oil and gas is required to maintain the security of UK energy supply, arguing there would be ongoing demand for the fossil fuels during the energy transition.

Fracking remains unpopular among the British public, environmental campaigners, and many energy experts, amid concerns the capital-intensive practice causes earthquakes and contributes to climate change whilst having limited potential to drive down energy costs or enhance the UK’s energy security.  

A Survation poll for RenewableUK earlier this month found that only 34 per cent of people were in favour of fracking – compared to 77 per cent who backed the wider use of wind and solar farms

And just yesterday, the founder of Cuadrilla Resources – the gas drilling company at the centre of controversies around fracking in the 2010s – told The Guardian that fracking would be impossible at any meaningful scale due to the UK’s challenging geology and the high capital costs of operations.

Chris Cornelius, a geologist, said he believed the government’s support for fracking was merely a “political gesture”.

The government has confirmed it is to go ahead with its plan to lift the moratorium that has been place since 2019 on fracking on the same day as it published a scientific review of the practice by the British Geological Survey, commissioned by then-Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng earlier this year.

The review notes that forecasting fracking-induced earthquakes and their magnitude “remains a significant challenge for the scientific community”, and notes that it is “not possible to identify all faults that could host earthquakes with magnitudes of up to 3 prior to operations, even with the best available data”.

The government said the review demonstrated the need to get more sites drilled in order to gather data and improve the evidence base, arguing there were developers keen to assist on this process.

On BBC Newsnight yesterday, Rees-Mogg said the current seismic activity threshold was “too low” and prevented fracking from being commercially viable. 

In a statement yesterday, Ed Miliband, Labour’s Shadow Climate Change and Net Zero Secretary, slammed the government’s plan to lift the moratorium on fracking.

“Fracking is a dangerous fantasy – it would do nothing to cut energy bills, it costs far more than renewables, it is unsafe and it is deeply unpopular with the public,” he said. “The Conservatives have broken yet another manifesto promise, this time on banning fracking. Now Conservative MPs must explain to their own constituents why they will have to suffer the danger of fracking in their own back yard.”

Analysis from Friends of the Earth reveals that 91 local authorities in England are covered by onshore oil and gas exploration licenses, with a number of potential fracking sites found in key ‘swing seats’ for the election. Sixty-one of the 143 parliamentary constituencies covered by licenses had a majority of less than 10,000 at the last election, with 32 of these having a majority of 5,000 or less.

Miliband added oil and gas firms were now profiting from the UK’s energy policy. “We now have an energy policy run for big fossil fuel interests not for the British people,” he said. “No to the windfall tax and yes to dangerous, unsafe fracking.”

The government’s plans for onshore and offshore fossil fuel extraction comes just a day after Prime Minister Liz Truss expounded the importance of countries’ bolstering their energy in security in her first address the United Nations General Assembly.

“We are cutting off the toxic power and pipelines from authoritarian regimes and strengthening our energy resilience,” she said. “We will ensure we cannot be coerced or harmed by the reckless actions of rogue actors abroad. We will transition to a future based on renewable and nuclear energy while ensuring that the gas used during that transition is from reliable sources including our own North Sea production.”

The latest developments come as the government is today also expected to set out the terms of its new review of the UK’s net zero strategy that is to be led by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore.

The government has said it wants to review current net zero plans to ensure they are compatible with driving economic growth and investment.

But some environmental campaigners have argued the review is unnecessary, given numerous economic studies have shown the net zero transition is likely to be net positive for the economy and many decarbonisation policies, such as renewables deployment and energy efficiency upgrades, serve to reduce energy bills and drive investment.

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