Liz Truss is to lift a ban on fracking despite a leaked government report suggesting little progress has been made in reducing and predicting the risk of earthquakes caused by the practice, the Guardian can reveal.
The first drilling licences in nearly three years are expected to be issued as early as next week, sources said, in a move that will reignite claims of another broken 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge.
Given fears about spiralling energy bills, the new prime minister announced last week that she would “end the moratorium on extracting our huge reserves of shale”, which has been in force across England since November 2019.
A long-awaited report by the British Geological Survey (BGS) was promised to be published, but it has been held up owing to the Queen’s death. The report, seen by the Guardian, admits that forecasting fracking-induced earthquakes and their magnitude “remains a scientific challenge”.
It says there are still “significant existing knowledge gaps” and that problems remain with identifying potential new fracking sites that may be able to handle earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0.
Existing rules require drilling to stop if tremors of 0.5 or more are caused. But fracking companies are reportedly lobbying for that to be substantially increased.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the former business secretary who is now the chancellor, asked the BGS in April to look into new techniques to help reduce the risk of earthquakes and their magnitude, and whether sites outside Lancashire could be better suited for drilling.
In its report, the BGS offers little evidence that there has been enough progress since the fracking ban to meet a 2019 manifesto promise that it would only be resumed if “the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.
The limited number of fracking sites in the UK “makes it impossible to determine with statistical significance” the rates of “induced seismicity” and means it is “difficult to make a valid comparison” with other countries, the report says.
It cites research from the US and Canada which found that 1% of fracking wells were linked to earthquakes with magnitudes above 3.0, but in some areas this rose to up to 30%.
While modelling in the US has helped to identify faults that are most likely to rupture during drilling, the report says, enough information was available in only a few areas and “more data is needed in other basins in the UK” to “apply this more widely”.
Given other industries are allowed to create earthquakes of higher magnitudes than fracking, the BGS says “consistent risk targets” could be helpful “for all energy-related industries that present a risk of induced earthquakes”.
Greenpeace said it was clear “there have been no significant breakthroughs in the science of prediction and management of earthquakes caused by fracking”. The charity’s chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, said: “For the Truss government to reverse its position on shale gas on the back of this would simply be breaking a clear promise on which they were elected.”
Making estimates of maximum magnitudes before and during drilling also “remains challenging”, according to the BGS. Attempts made at Preston New Road, where drilling was abandoned, “show some promise” but “provide estimates that are lower than the maximum observed magnitude”, the report adds.
Fracking has proved particularly contentious in Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and there remains some residual concern around Sussex after wide-scale protests against a drilling attempt in Balcombe a decade ago.
There is also thought to be a split around Truss’ new cabinet table – which will not include the Conservative peer Zac Goldsmith, who has been sacked as an environment minister – raising further fears about Truss’s commitment to tackling climate change.
Kwarteng wrote in his letter to the BGS that fracking was “not the solution to near-term price issues”, while Jacob Rees-Mogg, who replaced him as business secretary, earlier this year called shale gas “very clean” and dismissed concerns about tremors.
Other senior Tories sought to pile pressure on the government by calling the fracking ban “un-Conservative”. More than 30 MPs and peers including the former minister David Frost wrote to Boris Johnson in February saying drilling for shale gas would be a reliable energy source and bring investment to the UK.
The go-ahead for fracking companies to start the process of exploratory drilling could come as early as next week, after the end of the official mourning period for the Queen.
The government claims gas could start flowing in less than six months, but experts say it would take years, is far less accessible than once thought and would do little to reduce energy bills.
There are 93 exploratory drilling licenses already granted for 159 areas of the country, 75% of which are related to fracking, which will be automatically reactivated once the moratorium on fracking is lifted. Areas that could see drilling stretch from Sussex, Surrey and Dorset, to the Midlands, Yorkshire, Cheshire and Lancashire.
Companies have to seek planning permission to start drilling. However, the Guardian revealed this year that only a handful of MPs would support fracking in their area.
A government spokesperson said the survey was commissioned to “advise on the latest scientific evidence on shale gas extraction” and said any suggestion that the BGS was asked to justify fracking was “demonstrably untrue”, given the review had “clear, publicly available terms of reference”.
The spokesperson added: “Making the most of our own gas resources makes us less dependent on imports and helps maintain the security of the UK’s energy supply in both the short and long-term. Drawing on lessons from around the world, we will make sure it is done as safely as possible and where there is local support.”