Boris Johnson has paved the way for a potential lifting of the ban on fracking as the UK prime minister draws up a new energy strategy in response to the war in Ukraine.
“Everyone would expect the prime minister to look at all our options,” a Downing Street spokesperson said on Wednesday when asked about whether the moratorium on the highly controversial use of fracking in the UK could be lifted.
Johnson has asked ministers to take a fresh look at whether fracking could help meet UK domestic demand for oil and gas as the country seeks to shut out all Russian oil imports by Christmas.
The prime minister’s stance represents a swift change in attitude at the top of government after Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, argued on Sunday that those calling for a return to fracking “misunderstood” the situation.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been responsible for a gas boom in the US in recent years and involves pumping water, sand and chemicals under the ground at high pressure to release gas from rock formations.
But Johnson approved a moratorium on fracking in November 2019, reflecting concerns from local communities and environmentalists about the process.
Earlier that year, energy company Cuadrilla Resources halted fracking at a site near Blackpool in Lancashire after it triggered a minor earthquake with a magnitude of 2.9, which some local homeowners claimed caused damage to their properties.
At the weekend, however, Kwarteng insisted the ban would not be reversed, despite concerns about the UK’s energy security in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Even if we lifted the fracking moratorium tomorrow, it would take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes – and it would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside,” Kwarteng wrote in the Mail on Sunday. “Second, no amount of shale gas from hundreds of wells dotted across rural England would be enough to lower the European price any time soon.”
Several leading geologists have also suggested the geology of the UK is unsuitable for commercial fracking.
“Quite apart from the issues of social acceptance and environmental impact, the challenge that the subsurface geological structure poses for shale gas production has not gone away and is still largely absent from the discussion,” said John Underhill, director of the Center for Energy Transition at Aberdeen University.
Yet Johnson is under pressure from some of his own MPs to revive the nascent fracking industry in order to provide a more reliable source of gas and oil at a time of geopolitical instability.
Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, urged the prime minister to lift the shale gas moratorium to produce domestic gas. He warned that his company was close to filling in Britain’s only two viable shale gas wells with concrete in the coming months.
“Cuadrilla’s plans to plug the Lancashire shale wells are very advanced and the rig will still be arriving on site next week,” he said.
Johnson’s new energy strategy is not expected to abandon the UK government’s commitment to achieving “zero zero” energy consumption by 2050.
In fact the prime minister will emphasize the need to step up the production of nuclear and renewable energy, which are not only low-carbon sources of power but are also less vulnerable to international supply shocks.
As part of those discussions ministers are examining plans to relax the planning system to allow more new onshore wind farms. The Tory government put a de facto moratorium in place in 2015 for new onshore wind in England after an anti-green backlash from some of its backbench MPs.
Johnson has already partially reversed that measure by allowing onshore wind projects to bid for energy contracts from the government.