Boris Johnson has paved the way for a possible lifting of the UK ban on fracking for shale gas as he draws up a new energy supply strategy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The prime minister is seeking more domestic sources of energy after unveiling plans on Tuesday for a British ban on Russian oil imports, which triggered the biggest one-day price increase in diesel in more than 20 years.
Johnson has asked ministers to take a fresh look at whether shale gas could help meet the UK’s energy needs and is also considering accelerating the rollout of renewable energy projects including onshore and offshore wind farms.
“Everyone would expect the prime minister to look at all our options,” said a Downing Street spokesperson, when asked if the moratorium on UK fracking could be lifted.
The prime minister’s stance on shale gas contrasts starkly with business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who has been resisting calls from Conservative MPs to end the ban on fracking.
However, on Wednesday Kwarteng said the government had always had an “open mind” if fracking could be done in a safe and sustainable way.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been responsible for an energy boom in the US in recent years and involves pumping water, sand and chemicals under the ground at high pressure to release gas from rock formations.
Johnson approved a moratorium on UK fracking in November 2019, following concerns expressed by local communities and environmentalists about the nascent industry.
In the summer of 2019 energy company Cuadrilla Resources halted fracking tests at a site in Lancashire after it triggered an earth tremor with a magnitude of 2.9 on the Richter scale.
Several leading scientists have meanwhile suggested the geology of the UK is unsuitable for commercial fracking.
“Quite apart from the issues of social acceptance and environmental impact, the challenge that the subsurface geological structure poses for shale gas production [in the UK] has not gone away and yet is largely absent from the discussion,” said John Underhill, director of the Centre for Energy Transition at Aberdeen university.
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said fracking would not make any difference to the price paid by UK consumers for their energy and would take “decades” to come on stream.
As well as considering fracking, Johnson’s new energy supply strategy could also involve more North Sea oil and gas production.
But it is also expected to include more nuclear power and renewable energy, as the government aims to stick to its commitment for the UK to have net zero emissions by 2050.
Kwarteng told MPs on Wednesday he hoped the government would set out “slightly more ambitious” 2030 targets for use of “floating” offshore wind farms.
Ministers are also examining relaxing the planning system to allow more onshore wind farms.
David Cameron’s government put a de facto moratorium in place in 2015 for new onshore wind farms in England after a backlash from Tory MPs.
But Johnson has partially reversed that by allowing onshore wind projects to bid for subsidy contracts from the government.
The UK counts on Russian imports to meet about 8 per cent of domestic oil demand and about 18 per cent of its diesel.
After the price spike, British drivers will now have to spend more than £90 to fill up their vehicles with diesel.
Motoring group the RAC said average diesel prices at garage forecourts had risen 3p on Tuesday, the biggest daily increase since 2000, to a record 165.24p a litre. Petrol prices are also rising but at a slightly slower pace, gaining 2p on Tuesday to 158.20p a litre.
Additional reporting by Harry Dempsey in London
Twice weekly newsletter
Energy is the world’s indispensable business and Energy Source is its newsletter. Every Tuesday and Thursday, direct to your inbox, Energy Source brings you essential news, forward-thinking analysis and insider intelligence. Sign up here.