Environmental groups have voiced fears that the government is preparing to row back on fracking regulations after officials said they were considering reviewing earthquake safeguard rules.
The limits affecting shale gas fracking are strongly contested by the industry because they bring an immediate halt to fracking if even a minor tremor of 0.5 on the Richter scale is recorded.
Green campaigners raised concerns on Thursday after officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said they would “consider” opening a review of the existing fracking rules, following the outcome of a study by the Oil and Gas Authority which is looking at data from Cuadrilla’s fracking attempts.
The department announced the shift in a statement about UK shale gas on the same day that the fracking firm Cuadrilla resumed drilling in Lancashire. Cuadrilla had been forced to abandon its first well after repeatedly breaching the earthquake regulations.
A department spokesman said: “Shale gas could be an important new domestic energy source, reducing the level of gas imports while delivering broad economic benefits, including through the creation of well-paid, quality, jobs. It could also support our transition to net zero emissions by 2050.
“We have world-leading regulations that ensure shale gas exploration happens in a safe and environmentally responsible way. The Oil and Gas Authority is undertaking a scientific assessment of recent industry data, which we will consider once completed.”
Daniel Carey-Dawes, infrastructure campaigner at the environmental organisation CPRE, said the government’s new position “could open the door to more and stronger earthquakes caused by fracking”. He said the shift was “deeply concerning” because the public was clear that they did not want earthquake regulations to be weakened.
Carey-Dawes added: “A decision to relax seismicity regulations would further undermine public confidence and come with significant environmental risks. It is therefore imperative that the government attempts to restore public faith by making a firm commitment to uphold these regulations.”
The government’s renewed support for shale comes less than a month after a government reshuffle by Boris Johnson which ousted Greg Clark as business secretary in favour of Andrea Leadsom, an outspoken supporter of the shale gas industry. In the past Leadsom has hailed shale gas as a “great opportunity” saying the UK would be “mad not to look at what we can do at home”, according to a report in PoliticsHome.
Fracking involves pumping high-pressure water, sand and various chemicals into tightly packed shale rock formations. The process fractures the rocks and releases the gas contained within the shale layers. Opponents argue that, as well as contributing to sources of greenhouse gas-generating fossil fuels, fracking poses a threat to the local environment.
Jamie Peters, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Kick-starting an entire new fossil fuel industry when the impacts of climate breakdown are already ruining lives, including right here in the UK, doesn’t line up with the government’s claims to be a climate leader.”
The government’s climate watchdog has said that fracking would only be compliant with the UK’s legally binding climate targets, of a net zero carbon economy by 2050, if the practice replaced gas that would otherwise have been imported from overseas, and if it kept a lid on “carbon leaks” during production.
Rosie Rogers, head of climate at Greenpeace UK, said: “In a climate emergency it’s shocking that the government is wasting any time thinking about fracking. Fracking is our first post-truth industry, where there is no product, no profit, and no prospect of either. It’s time the government admitted that they backed the wrong horse and started backing the right one.”
Cuadrilla has said it will ask for extra time to drill for shale gas at its Lancashire fracking site, at Preston New Road, after its licence expires this November. Cuadrilla hopes its drilling work will make a case for the UK’s controversial shale gas ambitions and convince regulators to ease the earth tremor limits.