The Government is facing growing calls to make its fracking ban permanent, as Labour raised concerns the major U-turn could be an election ploy.
Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom made it clear on Saturday that the “moratorium” imposed after a damning report was only in place “until the science changes”.
The move in the run-up to the December 12 election came after research from the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) raised concerns over the ability to predict fracking-linked earthquakes.
The suspension is a reversal of years of support from the Tories, including from Boris Johnson who has consistently praised shale gas extraction and hit out at its opponents.
Shadow housing secretary John Healey welcomed the move but noted that the Conservatives are “playing catch-up now” with Labour’s opposition to the process, which was to feature prominently in the campaign.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Labour MP warned: “This appears to be temporary.
“This may not be a real reprieve. You’ve got to remember that Boris Johnson once said he wanted to leave no stone unturned and no stone unfracked, so this I fear could be a gambit at the start of the election and we may see that he does something different to what he says now.”
The Liberal Democrats raised similar fears, with former energy secretary Sir Ed Davey calling for an “immediate ban now”.
“But this belated, eve of election policy pause won’t distract voters from the Tories’ shocking record on the environment – not least the Prime Minister’s, when he lobbied to relax air pollution laws,” he said.
Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett welcomed the suspension as a “tremendous victory for communities and the climate” but he too called for legislation to make it permanent.
The Government said on Friday that it would end its support for the process, which has provoked particular outrage in counties such as Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Ms Leadsom defended the suspension despite praising the “advantages” of the process which she hailed as “a huge opportunity”.
“So, yes, it’s a disappointment but we’ve always been clear that we will follow the science,” she told Today.
But she was clear that the moratorium was only in place “until the science changes”.
Pressed on why a permanent ban is not being imposed, she replied: “Because this is a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom.
“We will follow the science and it is quite clear that we can’t be certain. The science isn’t accurate enough to be able to assess the fault lines, the geological studies have been shown to be inaccurate so therefore unless and until we can be absolutely certain we are imposing a moratorium.”
The OGA report found it is not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking.
The PM has previously celebrated fracking as appearing to be an “answer to the nation’s prayers” and called its critics’ reactions as “ludicrous” and “mad denunciations”.
But he has now followed Labour’s pledge for a ban and conceded he has “very considerable anxieties” about it, amid growing public opposition.
⚡ YOU'VE WON! WE'VE WON! ⚡The government has just announced an official end to their support for #fracking in England, after years of tireless campaigning. Fracking isn't wanted, isn't needed, and now – isn't happening.
Huge congratulations to all amazing campaigners! 🎉🍻💪 pic.twitter.com/XAZ7ZnDbSd
— Friends of the Earth 🌍 (@friends_earth) November 2, 2019
The climate crisis is one of the issues Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to focus on in the winter election campaign, with the party announcing a raft of measures including the creation of thousands of green jobs.
A recent report by the National Audit Office found that Government plans to establish the shale gas industry in the UK were taking longer than expected amid public concern over the effects of fracking on the environment and public health.
Protests have resulted at sites across the country and are estimated to have cost public bodies at least £32.7 million since 2011.
There has been much disturbance caused in particular to residents living near to the fracking site in Preston New Road, Lancashire, which is run by Cuadrilla.