Ministers to write to British Geological Survey to request new review of evidence on fracking tremor risks

The government will today pave the way for fracking to feature in its Energy Security Strategy, in a move that is set to spark fierce criticism of its plans to boost domestic fossil fuel production.

The Times reported this morning that Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng will formally write to the British Geological Survey (BGS) to request a three-month review of the tremor risk associated with fracking.

The moratorium on fracking was imposed in response to evidence that developers could not operate below a threshold for tremors that they had previously agreed to, which sparked accusations that the process was not sufficiently safe.

However, a vocal group of Conservative MPs have argued the moratorium should be lifted in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting turmoil on global energy markets, claiming that developing a UK fracking industry could help to bolster domestic energy security.

As such, Kwarteng will today call on the BGS to assess whether there is any new technology that can help predict and manage seismic events caused by fracking.

The review is expected to allow for fracking to be referenced in the upcoming Energy Security Strategy, which is expected to be published on Thursday but could be subject to further delays given key parts of the plan are yet to be finalised.

Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday told LBC Radio there was evidence that tremor impacts could be minimised, likening them to a “rock fall in a disused coal mine” and arguing that there needs to be “proportionality about seismic issues”.

However, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister told The Times that while the government would “look at all possible options for improving domestic energy supply” fracking could “only proceed if the science says it is safe, sustainable and causes only minimal disturbance to local communities”.

Kwarteng has previously questioned the ability of fracking in the UK in drive down gas prices, arguing it would have negligible impact and remains hugely unpopular with the public.

Those within government who are opposed to the lifting of the fracking moratorium are said to be relaxed about the BGS review, given there is scant evidence that concerns over tremors can be addressed. Insiders have indicated it is highly unlikely the government would lift the ban, given how unpopular the practice remains in marginal seats. As such, the Energy Security Strategy is expected to largely focus on plans to build new nuclear power plants and offshore wind, while fast tracking measures designed to boost North Sea oil and gas production.

Meanwhile, Cabinet remains divided on the issue of whether or not to relax planning rules for new onshore wind farms, with the Guardian reporting today that more than 100 Tory MPs are lobbying hard for an effective ban on new projects in England to remain in place.

Kwarteng and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove are leading calls for the government to introduce a much more ambitious target for onshore wind capacity and relax planning rules to allow more projects to be built.

Wind energy advocates maintain that onshore wind farms represent the cheapest form of new generation and could be built relatively quickly in order to help reduce imports of Russian gas.

But speaking over the weekend Transport Secretary Grant Shapps revealed that he was opposed to a significant expansion in onshore wind farms, branding them an “eyesore”. Other Cabinet Ministers are said to be opposed to the plans, with nine ministers sitting in Cabinet – Steve Barclay, Nadine Dorries, Simon Hart, Chris Heaton-Harris, Brandon Lewis, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Spencer and Nadhim Zahawi – having previously signed a letter calling for a cut in support for onshore wind in 2012.

The Energy Security Strategy is expected to include new proposals to ensure communities that host onshore wind farms receive financial incentives, but it remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister will approve proposals to relax planning rules and introduce a more ambitious target for onshore wind capacity with insiders warning that such moves could trigger a sizeable backbench rebellion.

Speaking yesterday, Labour’s Climate Secretary Ed Miliband slammed the government’s indecision on whether to relax planning restrictions on onshore wind farms.

“Families across the country are paying more on their energy bills because of the government’s moratorium on onshore wind, the cheapest power available,” he said. “Now the government seems to be backing off rumoured plans to scrap the ban, all because of pressure from the same Tory backbenchers who got it imposed in the first place. Britain deserves better than the Conservatives, who are incapable of acting in the public interest.”

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