Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has ordered the British Geological Survey [BGS] to assess and publish a new report on the impact of fracking if the government were to resume the practice.
The investigation has been ordered mere days before the government’s new energy supply plan is due to be published. The BGS will have three months to assess any changes to the science around fracking and put forward its conclusions.
The government put fracking on pause at its one operating site in the UK back in 2019 following opposition from campaign groups and concerns that the practice could cause earth tremors of an unpredictable magnitude.
However, with fuel prices on the rise and a pressing need for energy security emerging, some senior Conservatives have called on ministers to reconsider.
At the time that the government indefinitely suspended fracking operations, ministers indicated that the practice would not be allowed to resume without “compelling new evidence”. Nevertheless, fracking companies are now optimistic that the report could come as a “tentative first step” to overturning the suspension and “exploiting the huge potential that shale gas has” in the UK.
Francis Egan, the chief executive of Cuadrilla, the firm that operated the fracking site in the UK that was suspended three years ago, said: “We trust that this review will allow Britain's huge shale gas resources to be exploited.
“This can create tens of thousands of jobs, bolster energy security, and provide cheaper gas for local communities, and millions of pounds in tax revenues for northern councils.”
It is unclear what role fracking could play in the government’s future energy plans if given the all-clear, with the blueprint set to be published this week believed to focus more on nuclear power and renewables, plans to improve the energy efficiency of homes, and increasing oil and gas production in the North Sea.
Despite all of this, the government has insisted that it will continue to pursue its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Kwarteng said earlier this week: “The government's view is we don't need to change the targets… but we can be more flexible by looking at things like energy efficiency [and a] greater diversity of energy sources.”
The business secretary also said that the government would be “led by the science” in its fracking policy and the practice would not be lifted unless proven to be “safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby”.
When asking the BGS to conduct their study, Kwarteng asked for more information on any new techniques which could make the fracking process safer, as well as how the risks associated compared to those around other forms of producing energy underground.
Even if fracking is proven to be viable, it would likely take many years before shale gas could be rolled out at commercial volume.
Kwarteng explained: “It remains the case that fracking in England would take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of gas could be produced for the market, and would certainly have no effect on prices in the near term.
“However, there will continue to be an ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming decades as we transition to cheap renewable energy and new nuclear power. In light of [Russian president, Vladimir] Putin's criminal invasion of Ukraine, it is absolutely right that we explore all possible domestic energy sources.”
Opposition MPs and environmental campaigners have criticised the move, with Labour shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband saying that it was indicative that the government “cannot be trusted to deliver on the green energy sprint” required to ensure “energy security, to cut bills and tackle the climate crisis.”
He also said: “The government itself concluded that fracking is unsafe and will not help our energy security or cut bills, and fracking is strongly opposed by local communities.”
Elsewhere, the Friends of the Earth group has labelled it “pure fantasy” on the government’s part to believe that fracking could resolve the energy demands of the UK.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons