A moratorium on shale gas extraction was introduced in 2019 over tremors caused by the controversial process.
The Government has commissioned a review of the latest scientific evidence on fracking, as the debate over UK energy supplies intensifies.
There has been a moratorium on shale gas extraction since November 2019, on the basis of evidence that it was not possible to accurately predict tremors associated with fracking.
But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has written to the British Geological Survey asking for a report on the latest science around fracking including new techniques, improvements in geological modelling or areas outside of Lancashire – where fracking has taken place – less at risk of tremors.
He said the Government was and would be guided by the science on shale gas but in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine it was “absolutely right that we explore all possible domestic energy sources”.
It comes as the fossil fuel industry and some MPs have urged a restart to fracking or more extraction from North Sea oil and gas to secure energy supplies and ease prices.
But there have also been widespread calls for insulating homes, more renewables and weaning the country off gas in response to the crisis, and warnings further domestic fossil fuel exploration will do nothing to lower prices pegged to international markets.
Mr Kwarteng said: “It remains the case that fracking in England would take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of gas could be produced for the market, and would certainly have no effect on prices in the near term.
“However, there will continue to be an ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming decades as we transition to cheap renewable energy and new nuclear power.
“In light of Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, it is absolutely right that we explore all possible domestic energy sources.
“However, unless the latest scientific evidence demonstrates that shale gas extraction is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby, the pause in England will remain in place,” he said.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process in which liquid is pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release gas or oil trapped within it.
The process has been mired in controversy since it hit the headlines in 2011 for causing two minor earthquakes in Lancashire, prompting a temporary ban on fracking in the UK
That was later lifted, with controls put in place to prevent tremors, but fracking continued to draw opponents who fear it can also cause water contamination, noise and traffic pollution.
Environmentalists also warn that pursuing new sources of gas – a fossil fuel – is not compatible with efforts to tackle climate change, and the focus should be on developing cleaner sources of energy such as renewables.
Fracking at Preston New Road was suspended indefinitely after a record-breaking tremor measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale in August 2019, with the moratorium or “pause” coming in a few months later.
Earlier this year, Cuadrilla, who operated the site was ordered to permanently cap and abandon the only two horizontal shale wells that have been drilled in the UK.
That demand was suspended as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensified already soaring gas prices, which have hit households with a more than 50% increase in energy bills.
The move comes as the Government prepares to unveil its new energy security strategy this week, in which it is expected to set out plans to boost new nuclear power capacity, solar and offshore wind, but not cheap onshore wind, which is popular with the public but opposed by some Tory politicians.
Ahead of the strategy’s launch, minister Jacob Rees-Mogg downplayed the earthquake risks from fracking and suggested “every last drop” of oil should be extracted from the North Sea.
But UN science body the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on Monday warning of the need for immediate and rapid emissions cuts, with substantial reductions in fossil fuel use, to avert catastrophic climate change.
As the report was launched, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure was “moral and economic madness”.
Shadow climate change and net zero secretary Ed Miliband said: “Rather than bowing to their own backbenchers, the Government should be coming forward with real action to ensure energy security and tackle the cost-of-living crisis.
“The Government itself concluded that fracking is unsafe, and will not help our energy security or cut bills. And fracking is strongly opposed by local communities.
“Labour would turbocharge the drive to clean, home-grown renewable and nuclear power to provide energy security, cut bills and tackle the climate crisis.”
Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla Resources, said: “The Government clearly recognises the huge potential that shale gas offers this country, and this review may be a tentative first step towards overturning the moratorium and exploiting that potential.”
He said the Oil and Gas Authority had released a report in 2020 which found seismicity was “imperceptible” at the first of Cuadrilla’s two Preston New Road shale wells, and the Royal Society had said seismic risks of fracking were low.
“We trust that this review will allow Britain’s huge shale gas resources to be exploited,” he said, claiming it would create tens of thousands of jobs, bolster energy security, provide cheaper gas for local communities and millions of pounds in tax revenues for northern councils.
But Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Danny Gross said: “The idea that shale gas extraction will significantly lower energy bills or improve energy security is pure fantasy.
“Fracking has been deeply unpopular with communities that have faced the prospect of shale gas extraction.
“Energy efficiency and developing the UK’s vast renewable power potential are the best ways to deal with the energy crisis and bring down soaring fuel bills – and this must be the focus of the Government’s upcoming energy review.”