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Government makes U-turn with temporary ban on fracking

Words: Huw Morris

The government has imposed a moratorium on fracking for shale gas, ending a 10 year policy of supporting the controversial extraction process.

The move follows a study by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) which warned it was not possible to “accurately predict the probability and magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations”. Residents close to Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road, the UK’s only active fracking site, also claimed seismic activity in August had damaged their homes following a tremor of 2.9 magnitude.

Ministers have now warned shale gas companies that they would not agree to any future fracking projects “until compelling new evidence is provided” that the process is safe.

“After reviewing the OGA’s report into recent seismic activity at Preston New Road, it is clear that we cannot rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community,” said business and energy secretary Andrea Leadsom. “For this reason, I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”

The decision marks a major U-turn in government support for the process, with previous Conservative administrations enthusiastically backing fracking.

Former chancellor George Osborne said he wanted the UK to be a “leader of the shale gas revolution’, while prime minister Boris Johnson had previously referred to the process as “an answer to the nation’s prayers” and “glorious news for humanity”. He said now he had “"very considerable anxieties" about the issue.

The move also comes less than week after the National Audit Office warned the government’s plan to establish fracking across the UK is considerably behind schedule with only three wells in three years when it envisaged 20 by the middle of next year. Public bodies had spent at least £32.7 million on the process since 2011, £13 million of this by police forces maintaining security.

Environmentalists welcomed the decision. “This moratorium is a tremendous victory for communities and the climate,” said Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett. “For nearly a decade local people across the country have fought a David and Goliath battle against this powerful industry. We are proud to have been part of that fight.”

Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) chief executive Tom Fyans described the move as a “fantastic win for local democracy and everyone who cares about protecting the countryside from climate catastrophe and mass industrialisation”.

He added: “CPRE was absolutely resolute in its opposition to policies proposed by the government to ‘fast-track’ fracking through the planning system, removing local people’s voices from the decision-making process. When calls were made to change the rules to allow fracking to continue, even when it caused ever bigger earthquakes, countryside campaigners said “no!” We’ve long called for fracking to be stopped, and are thrilled that our messages have resonated finally.”

The government’s new stance follows that taken by both Labour and Liberal Democrats. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of performing an "election stunt" in the run-up to December’s general election, while the Liberal Democrats said the moratorium did not mean the process would be banned.

The British Geological Survey estimates there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the north of England. Extracting only 10 per cent could meet the UK’s gas needs for more than 40 years.

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