The former Brexit minister David Frost has joined Conservative MPs in writing an open letter to Boris Johnson calling for a resumption of fracking in the UK, in another indication of the ongoing battle within the party over environmental issues.
Lord Frost argued that extracting domestic shale gas would give the UK a “competitive and reliable source of energy”. But Zac Goldsmith, a key green voice in the government, said it would not reduce energy prices and would put ministers at “war with furious communities”.
The letter to the prime minister was organised by the Conservative Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) of Conservative MPs, which argues against many green levies and targets, saying the government should prioritise lower energy costs and more secure supplies.
Last week, leading climate scientists told the Guardian that the group appeared to be trying to delay a shift towards lower emissions by including climate policies in a culture war and spreading disinformation, a charge the NZSG rejects.
The MPs’ letter, shared with the Sunday Telegraph, said shale deposits around Lancashire and surrounding counties offer “at least 50 years of cheap and sustainable gas”.
It read: “If levelling up is to mean anything it must be centred around empowering communities, rather than telling them what they can and cannot do … With the lack of public debate about our strategy to reach net zero, we have abandoned this fundamentally conservative principle … It’s time to reverse this moratorium.”
The Sunday Telegraph said 29 MPs had signed the letter but named only five of them – Craig Mackinlay, Steve Baker, John Whittingdale, Bob Blackman and Julian Knight. The organisers of the letter declined to reveal any more names.
Frost, who has emerged as a leading dissident voice on the Tory right since resigning from his ministerial role in December, told the Telegraph that fracking would bring “a competitive and reliable source of energy” and reduce reliance on imports.
But Goldsmith, a Foreign Office minister and peer, said that to even replace half the gas the UK imports would require 6,000 fracking wells “with all the associated industrial equipment and endless movements of trucks ferrying toxic chemicals and wastewater to and from sites. It’s hard to imagine communities across the UK being OK with that.”
In a series of tweets, Goldsmith said fracking was deeply unpopular with the public, and that since any shale gas extracted would be sold at international market prices it would have no impact on UK bills.
Gas was still needed, he said, but added: “To have any impact at all, government would need to rig the market and go to war with furious communities. On every level the cost would be enormous.”
The former Tory chancellor George Osborne, who offered fracking companies generous tax breaks in his 2013 budget before drilling licences were later revoked, told a House of Lords committee that extra gas production would only increase employment. He said fracked gas would be a small proportion of global production and would therefore have little influence on the international prices that dictate what UK households pay.
The government’s position remains that fracking is “unproven” as a resource in the UK, and that the inability to accurately predict Earth tremors associated with it meant it could not be supported.
The NZSG is campaigning alongside Cuadrilla, the company that operated two shale wells in Lancashire. Work at these was stopped in late 2019 when the government halted fracking in England after warnings about possible quakes.
On Thursday, Cuadrilla announced it was plugging and abandoning its two shale wells at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire, on the instructions of the government’s Oil and Gas Authority.
News of this was announced in a joint press release between Cuadrilla and the NZSG, including quotes from the group’s chair and vice-chair, Tory MPs Craig Mackinlay and Steve Baker, calling the decision “utter madness”.
Similarly, the Telegraph article about the NZSG’s letter was published alongside a comment piece from the chief executive of Cuadrilla, Francis Egan, calling domestic fracking “a no-brainer”.
David Frost joins Tory MPs in calls for return of fracking in UK