British government ministers are facing a furious backlash from Conservative MPs after overturning a manifesto pledge to pause fracking until it is proved safe, and indicating that drilling could be imposed without local support.
Outlining a return to shale gas extraction in England after three years, Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed worries about earthquakes caused by the practice as “hysteria”, claiming this was often down to a lack of scientific understanding.
But, speaking in the Commons, the business and energy secretary was repeatedly challenged by Tory MPs, who asked how local support for fracking would be assessed and sought reassurance on prime minister Liz Truss’s pledge that this was needed.
Mr Rees-Mogg refused to be drawn, saying only that fracking firms would be urged to financially compensate people affected by shale gas drilling, a practice he said was “in the national interest”.
The Guardian has also learned that Mr Rees-Mogg’s department could designate fracking sites as nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), allowing them to bypass normal planning requirements.
Such a designation, which a government source confirmed is being considered, is normally used for projects such as roads and power generation schemes. Applying it to fracking sites would infuriate many Tory MPs.
Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for Fylde in Lancashire, where fracking took place before ministers halted the practice in 2019, told the Guardian that using the NSIP system would explicitly breach Ms Truss’s promise during her Tory leadership campaign that drilling would only happen with local approval.
“If BEIS [the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] do this, they do so in the face of clear commitments made by the prime minister — there is no ifs or buts, it is crystal clear what she said,” Mr Menzies said.
“Let’s give her an opportunity to demonstrate to the people of this country that she is a PM who does what she says she is going to do. Let’s hope we don’t get into the territory of people feeling they’ve been told one thing, and another thing happens.”
Another Tory MP whose constituency could see fracking said the only way he could support it would be if schemes were approved by local planners, with no possibility of decisions then being overturned.
“I am going to wait and see what the government will do,” the MP said. “But I have marked their card. I’m not a fan of fracking, and I’m not convinced at this stage that it’s safe to go ahead.”
It marks yet another political risk for Ms Truss, with polling consistently showing fracking is not popular, and minimal evidence that England has enough accessible shale gas to make a noticeable dent in energy prices.
The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledged to pause fracking unless there was greater scientific certainty about its safety, notably on seismic activity triggered by the drilling.
A report by the British Geological Survey, commissioned by ministers and finally published this week, said it remained difficult to predict the frequency and magnitude of fracking-created quakes.
But in a notably combative Commons appearance, in answer to an urgent question from Labour after the resumption of fracking was announced in a press release, Mr Rees-Mogg said opposition to it was “sheer Ludditery” and, in some cases, he added, financed by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“It is safe,” he said. “It is shown to be safe. The scare stories have been disproved time and again. The hysteria about seismic activity, I think, fails to understand that the Richter scale is a logarithmic scale.”
Mr Rees-Mogg said the previous limit on earthquake activity caused by fracking — 0.5 magnitude — was too low, and that quakes of 2.5 were a perfectly routine natural phenomenon globally.
Ed Miliband, the shadow secretary for climate change, called the plan a “charter for earthquakes”, promising Mr Rees-Mogg that Labour would “hang this broken promise round their necks in every part of the country between now and the next general election”.
Labour hopes to make the forthcoming byelection in West Lancashire, prompted by the departure of the sitting Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, a de facto referendum on fracking, given the constituency is another area where drilling could take place.
The Commons exchanges revealed the extent of Tory scepticism towards the new policy, with a series of MPs pressing Mr Rees-Mogg on how and if local support would be measured.
Sir Greg Knight, the Tory MP for East Yorkshire, another area with shale gas reserves, told Mr Rees-Mogg that the safety evidence of fracking was simply not there. “Is he aware the safety of the public is not a currency in which some of us choose to speculate?”
A visibly angry Mr Menzies responded to Mr Rees-Mogg’s comments about opposition to fracking by beginning: “There is nothing Luddite about the people of Lancashire or Fylde.”
Mark Fletcher, the Tory MP for Bolsover in Derbyshire, expressed worries about Mr Rees-Mogg’s repeated argument that concerned locals could be compensated by fracking firms.
“I have listened carefully to the secretary of state, and I have to say that the local consent plans do not seem to wash,” he said. “It seems to come back to communities being bought off rather than having a vote.”
Ministers would also expect to be met by considerable resistance from campaign groups, and most likely protests and blockades, if they push ahead with fracking schemes.
Tom Fyans, interim chief executive of countryside charity CPRE, said there “isn’t a cat in hell’s chance that people will accept fracking in their neighbourhood”.
He said: “It’s wildly unpopular as well as unsafe, which is why it was banned in the first place. That’s why there’s a real fear the government will try to use the planning system to force fracking on to unwilling communities. To do so would be a stunningly ill-judged attack on local democracy.”