The British shale gas revolution promised by David Cameron has in effect been declared dead after the government’s “fracking tsar” quit, claiming policy was being driven by “environmental lobbying rather than science”.
Natascha Engel, a former Labour MP and deputy speaker, wrote to business secretary Greg Clark that she was resigning with immediate effect, complaining that “a perfectly viable industry is being wasted”.
Ms Engel, the commissioner for shale gas, said the industry was being killed in the UK by Mr Clark’s refusal to review the limit for earth tremors caused by fracking, which is 0.5 per cent on the Richter scale.
She wrote: “A 0.5 tremor is much weaker than the rumble you might feel when walking above a Tube train. Yet if a frack unleashes a tremor rated 0.5, operators have to stop what they are doing for 18 hours.” She said this made operations impossible.
Cuadrilla, the only company so far to frack in Britain, was unable to complete tests of a shale gas exploration well at a site near Blackpool last year after triggering a number of earth tremors above 0.5, forcing it to suspend work.
The company admitted in February that it was in effect impossible to produce shale gas commercially within the rules. Both it and Ineos, which also hopes to frack in England, have been lobbying the government and industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority, to review the regulations on seismicity.
Earlier this month Ineos warned that it would abandon its fracking plans in the UK unless the government’s rules were relaxed.
Ms Engel’s resignation comes as pressure grows on the government to dramatically cut carbon emissions, with shale gas exploration among the targets of recent climate change protests in London.
Mr Cameron and George Osborne, chancellor, had championed fracking — the hydraulic fracturing of rocks to release shale gas — as an answer to Britain’s energy problems, hoping to emulate its success in the US.
Fracking has transformed the US into the world’s largest energy producer over the last decade. It pumps more oil than Russia or Saudi Arabia and has become a net exporter of gas.
While Britain is likely to accelerate a shift towards lower-carbon sources of electricity, there are questions over the future of gas, which is used to heat 85 per cent of the country’s homes and is less readily substituted.
The UK has become more reliant on gas imports as North Sea supplies have declined, including shipments of liquefied natural gas from the US, primarily sourced from fracking.
But critics contend that what works on the vast plains of Texas and North Dakota may not be suitable for the more densely populated UK.
Public support for fracking in the UK stands at just 15 per cent according to government surveys, and the industry’s development has stalled in the face of local protests and claims that “earthquakes” had been triggered by early use of the technology.
Ms Engel wrote: “Firms have invested hundreds of millions of pounds. They did this on the basis that government policy would be rational, that it would be scientific. But it’s not.”
She argued that it is more environmentally friendly to use domestically produced gas than to import it. Mr Clark has argued that the 0.5 per cent limit was agreed in consultation with the fracking industry.
But Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, will this week attempt to put pressure on the government to go further in tackling carbon emissions, calling on ministers to declare “a national emergency” on climate change.
The party will try to force a Commons vote on the issue on Wednesday on an opposition day debate, putting pressure on Conservative MPs to back the plan or explain their opposition.
Mr Corbyn said that recent protests, some inspired by the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, were “a massive and necessary wake-up call”. Ms Engel has questioned why the government was listening to a teenager who told children not to go to school.
A spokesman for the department of business, energy and industrial strategy said the government supported the shale industry in the UK “because we believe it could have the potential to be a new domestic energy source, and create thousands of well-paid, quality jobs”.
They added the government was “confident” that current regulations “strike the right balance in ensuring the industry can develop, while ensuring any operations are carried out safely and responsibly”.
Additional reporting by Nathalie Thomas in Edinburgh