Conservative MPs in shale gas areas have reacted angrily to the announcement by Jacob Rees-Mogg, that the moratorium on fracking had been lifted.
The business secretary told MPs that “much had changed” since 2019, when the moratorium was introduced because of earthquake risks from fracking.
Then the government said it would support shale gas only if it could be done in a safe and sustainable way. Ministers would be “led by the science”, the government said at the time.
But a report commissioned by the government from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and released today, concluded that forecasting earthquake risk was still a “scientific challenge” and that there were significant gaps in knowledge.
Asked why the government was bringing back fracking now, Mr Rees-Mogg said today:
“There is a war in Ukraine. We need security of supply”.
There were no details on how ministers proposed to support the industry.
Earthquake risk and the BGS report
Sir Greg Knight, Conservative, East Yorkshire, raised the conclusion of the BGS report that forecasting earthquakes remained a challenge to experts:
“Is it not therefore creating a risk of an unknown quantity to pursue shale gas exploration at the present time? Is he aware that the safety of the public is not a currency in which some of us choose to speculate?”
Jacob Rees-Mogg responded:
” It is all a matter of proportionality.
“There are not limits on mining. There are not limits on ordinary oil extraction. It is only shale gas that has limits, and there is no evidence that shale gas is worse than any of those other activities.”
Labour’s Bill Esterson, who represents Sefton Central in a shale gas area, said people living near a proposed fracking site at Altcar Moss felt their homes shake during seismic surveys. He said:
“The Government’s own report says that little progress has been made in reducing and predicting the risks. When is he finally going to admit that fracking is a non-starter in this country?”
Earlier this month, the prime minister promised that fracking would be allowed in England only when there was clear consensus of support for the process.
Today, the business secretary described opposition to fracking as “hysteria” and “sheer Ludditery”.
The Conservative Mark Menzies, who represents the area of Fylde where Cuadrilla’s caused repeated earthquakes, said:
“There is nothing Luddite about the people of Lancashire or Fylde.”
He said he had asked the business department for information about lifting the moratorium for the past two weeks but had received no reply. He said:
“If the Prime Minister is to remain a woman of her word, and a woman in whom we can believe—and I believe she is—will the Secretary of State outline how that local consent will be given and demonstrated in my constituency of Fylde?”
Mr Rees-Mogg said:
“We obviously want to work with local communities, and it is really important that companies that seek to extract shale gas come up with packages that make what they are proposing to do welcome to local communities. That is of fundamental importance and is what the Prime Minister has set out.”
Scott Benton, Conservative MP for Blackpool South, elected in 2019 soon after the moratorium was introduced, said the promise of the need for local support “poses many questions”:
“What is the local community and how do we define it? How do we ascertain whether it can command local support? What incentives, if any, will be provided to local communities that have fracking imposed upon them? My constituents are understandably anxious about fracking returning to the Fylde coast. When will they receive an answer to some of those questions?”
Mr Rees-Mogg said some residents would be affected “much, much more than others”. He said they should receive “some financial benefit for the inconvenience”:
“It is important that people benefit and are rewarded for doing something that is in the national interest.”
Another Lancashire Conservative, Paul Maynard, said he had “sought to reassure constituents that they would have the opportunity to have their say because local consent was required”. He said:
“I have been listening carefully to the Secretary of State this morning, but I have yet to hear any explanation of how local consent will be determined; indeed, any reference to local consent has been absent. Let me try once more: will my constituents be asked whether they want fracking, or not?”
Mr Rees-Mogg repeated that it was the responsibility of companies to “work out how they can get that local consent”.
Mark Fletcher, who won the shale gas area of Bolsover for the Conservatives in 2019, said:
“I have to say that the local consent plans do not seem to wash. It seems to come back to communities’ being bought off rather than having a vote. Can the Secretary of State confirm once and for all that residents across Bolsover who are concerned about fracking will be given a vote to object to these schemes locally?”
The business secretary did not answer the question.
Another Conservative, Jason McCartney, who represents Colne Valley in the West Yorkshire shale gas region, asked how local consent would be measured:
“How would we ensure that those impacted by any fracking wells get any benefit?”
Mr Rees-Mogg did not answer the question. He said shale gas extraction had been popular in the US because “people quite like improving their standard of living, and I think that the same is true in this country”.
Asked by Labour’s Jeff Smith who specifically would be responsible for measuring and determining local consent for fracking, Mr Rees-Mogg said:
“The matter will be dealt with in a governmental way, as is normally done when we seek to work out what the consents are. There are perfectly proper processes for establishing the views of local communities.”
Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion who was arrested at anti-fracking protests in 2013, said there was no public support for fracking:
“how is he going to measure that, particularly given that this terrible and deeply unpopular decision coincides with the Government’s draconian new anti-protest laws?”
Mr Rees-Mogg replied:
“I think local support is important, and one of the things that companies that want to drill for shale gas will have to do is come up with packages that are attractive to local communities. That will ensure that people get some financial reward from shale gas being extracted near them.”
Stephanie Peacock, Labour, Barnsley East, said government figures showed that only 17% of people supported fracking. She asked how the government would ensure that northern communities were not “disproportionately affected” .
Mr Rees-Mogg replied:
“I would say to people: do they want cheaper and more secure energy or not? If the answer is yes, fracking is going to be part of the answer”.
The written ministerial statement issued by the government this morning said regulators of the fracking system should be “proactive in extending existing consents and permissions where practicable, to support the development of energy resources in the National interest”.
Andrew Gwynne (Labour, Denton and Reddish) asked the business secretary how the new proposals on public consent would work with the planning system:
“If the local authority listens to the community and refuses planning permission, the fracking companies have the option to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. It is not within the remit of the planning inspectors to consider common consent as a material planning consideration. Will he change the planning rules to ensure that that is not the case?”
Mr Rees-Mogg did not answer the question. He said planning appeals were decided by a secretary of state in a quasi-judicial capacity.
Justin Madders, who represents Ellesmere Port and Neston for Labour, said a shale gas site in his constituency had been rejected by the local authority and a government minister on appeal:
“There is no local consent in Ellesmere Port and Neston, so will the Secretary of State send the fracking companies the message that there is no point in their coming to ask, because they will not get our agreement?
Another Labour MP, Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) said the local government select committee had concluded in 2018 that fracking decisions were best made by elected local planning authorities. The government never responded to the report, he said.
The Conservative Party 2019 manifesto said the moratorium would not be lifted “unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.
Labour’s climate change spokesperson, Ed Miliband, said:
“They are lifting the ban, but they cannot supply the evidence, and the British Geological Survey report published today certainly does not do it. So in the absence of the evidence, his approach is to change the safety limits.
“I look forward to him and his colleagues explaining his charter for earthquakes to the people of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the midlands, Sussex, Dorset and, indeed, Somerset who will be part of his dangerous experiment. Let me tell the Conservatives that we will hang this broken promise round their necks in every part of the country between now and the next general election.
Mr Miliband added:
“For communities in every part of our country, today shows that they can never trust a word this Government say again, and he has shown he is willing to break his promises to support dangerous fringe ideas that put the interests of fossil fuel companies above those of the British people.”
The business secretary said lifting of the moratorium was consistent with the 2019 Conservative manifesto.
“We know that shale gas is safe. It is safe in the United States, where it has been one of the biggest contributors to the decline in carbon emissions of any activity that has gone on in that country.”
But Labour’s Dame Angela Eagle (Wallasey) said:
“The science has not proved categorically that it can be done safely, so he is reneging on his solemn promise, which all Conservative Members stood on, to the British people in 2019. This is not a legitimate thing for this Government to do, is it?”
The former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, asked what studies had been done on the effect of fracking on aquifers. Mr Rees-Mogg referred to a 2021 report, which he said concluded that most of evidence on aquifer pollution was invented. [The report by the Royal Society recommended surveys of methane and other contaminants in groundwater before, during and after shale gas operations].
The business secretary said a shale gas supply would “bring us cheaper energy”. But this has been disputed by many experts and leading Conservatives, including the now chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng.
Richard Burgon, Labour, Leeds East, said fracking was being pursued by the government “in the corporate interest”. He said renewables were nine times cheaper than gas.
Margaret Greenwood, who holds Wirral West for Labour, said:
“My constituents will be extremely alarmed to hear the Minister’s remarks about the exploitation of dangerous fossil fuels. They have made it abundantly clear to me that they care about the environment, they care about the next generation, and they take climate change seriously, so I ask him, on behalf of my constituents: will he think again and ban fracking?”
Mr Rees-Mogg said gas was fundamental to a “sensible transition”.
No Conservative MPs in core shale gas areas backed the government’s announcement in parliament today.
Sir Robert Syms, Poole, was one of few Conservative MPs to support the business secretary. He said it would “make us a lot richer, if we pursue it”:
“It seems to me that if local people give their consent, that is in the national interest.”
Conservative Craig Mackinay, who represents South Thanet and chairs the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, said shale gas would have a lower carbon footprint than importing liquified natural gas.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) said the 0.5 limit on earthquakes caused by fracking was nothing like the 1.5ml limit people in his constituency were experiencing from pile-driving for the HS2 rail line. [Cuadrilla repeatedly breached the 0.5ml limit when it fracked at Preston New Road in Lancashire. The largest earthquake, which measured 2.9, was reported to the BGS by about 2,000 people.]
Mr Rees-Mogg referred to unsupported allegations that Russia had funded opposition to fracking in the UK:
“I am well aware that there have been objections to fracking, but I would also note that there have been stories, widely reported, that some of the opposition to fracking has been funded by Mr Putin’s regime.”
Labour’s Ed Miliband later tweeted: