The UK has called a halt to fracking after a new report found it was impossible to predict “the probability or magnitude of earthquakes” caused by the shale gas extraction technique.
The decision comes at the start of an election campaign where opposition parties are set to make environmental issues central to their attacks on Boris Johnson’s Conservative party.
The government said there would be a “moratorium” on fracking until “compelling new evidence” showed that it was safe.
The new policy is a sharp reversal of the government’s stance, with Mr Johnson and Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary, both voicing support for fracking in the past. In 2013, George Osborne, then chancellor, announced “the most generous tax regime in the world” for shale gas, saying he wanted “Britain to be a leader of the shale gas revolution”.
Although ministers insisted until recently that shale gas could help Britain make the “transition” to a zero carbon economy, replacing imported gas from the Middle East, fracking has been increasingly targeted by a powerful new environmental movement.
Earlier this year, Theresa May legislated to reach net zero carbon emissions in 2050 as one of her last acts as prime minister, making Britain the first major economy to legislate for such a target, reflecting the lobbying of groups such as Extinction Rebellion.
Ministers imposed the fracking moratorium after the report by the Oil and Gas Authority. It also follows the biggest UK earthquake yet, at Preston New Road, near Blackpool, where Cuadrilla, the shale gas group, suspended operations after a tremor shook nearby houses. The tremor measured 250 times the level permitted by the government.
Cuadrilla, which has spent £270m on its fracking operations in the UK, is offering compensation payments of a few hundred pounds to affected householders.
Cuadrilla caused a weaker tremor in 2011 at a nearby site, which led to a seven-year pause in operations in the UK.
Labour called on the government to legislate for a permanent ban.
“The next Labour government will ban fracking — whereas the Tories will only call a temporary halt to it,” said Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow business secretary.
The Conservatives need to win seats in constituencies across the midlands and north of England, an area where the majority of licences for shale gas exploration have been granted.
But a recent YouGov survey found that two-thirds of respondents had an unfavourable view of shale gas, according to the poll of 1,662 British adults, while local people have protested at every well site.
“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 Mrs Leadsom. “For this reason, I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”
Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure to release gas from rock formations. It is common in Canada and the US, which has become the world’s biggest natural gas producer, but is banned in some EU countries including France and Germany.
Opponents say that apart from the tremors, old wells could leak dangerous fluids into the water table. They also question why the UK would want to encourage a new fossil fuel when it has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050.
The UK’s consumption of natural gas for power generation has surged during the past five years, replacing dirtier coal power. However, for a net zero emissions system, natural gas would have to be combined with large-scale carbon capture, which is not economically viable using current technologies.
“Opening up a new fossil fuel industry in this climate emergency was always an awful idea, and it’s only seemed worse as the industry has lurched from mishap to disaster,” said Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK.
Ken Cronin, chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, which represents the industry, said the UK had a “world-class resource” that could be extracted safely and displace imports. “Hydraulic fracturing stimulation is a longstanding technology used around the world and in a number of industries, including the oil and gas, water and geothermal sectors.”
The National Audit Office, a government spending watchdog, said that “at least” £32.7m had been spent by various public bodies dealing with fracking, including the police, since 2011.
Additional reporting by Leslie Hook in London