The UK’s only two shale gas wells are set to be put permanently out of use at the end of June.
Talks over whether the UK’s only fracking wells should be permanently abandoned in three months’ time have hit a deadlock.
The two wells, in Lancashire, are due to be concreted over by 30 June on the orders of the Oil and Gas Authority.
The company behind the wells, Cuadrilla, wants the government to restart fracking at the site to reduce the UK’s reliance on Russian gas.
The government says it can not overrule the regulator.
But ministers have also said it “doesn’t necessarily make any sense to concrete over the wells” at Little Plumpton, near Preston, which are currently not producing gas.
They are urging the company to apply to the regulator for an extension to the 30 June deadline for sealing them up.
The BBC understands Cuadrilla is reluctant to do so because of the financial risk of extending their licence – without certainty about whether they will be decommissioned again in future.
Fracking was banned in 2019 over concerns about earth tremors, and the Conservatives promised at that year’s general election that they would not support it “unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.
That remains the government’s official position.
But, in light of soaring oil and gas prices – and the UK saying it wants to become more “energy independent” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a growing number of Tory MPs have called on the government to reconsider whether the UK could use fracking to produce its own gas.
No 10 suggested the prime minister had agreed to look at it again to “see if it has a role to play”.
Downing Street sources told the BBC that with oil prices so high, there were things “we would have dismissed before that we can’t dismiss now”.
The government’s goal is still to shift to renewable sources of energy, they added, but “in the transition period we need to pump more oil and gas of our own” and it was “in that context we should look at fracking”.
Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan said that ministers recent “rhetoric” on fracking did not match their actions.
“On Wednesday morning, I read in the newspapers that the prime minister had decided that concreting up Britain’s only two shale gas wells, in the midst of an energy crisis and given his own assessment that Europe is ‘addicted’ to Russian gas, would be a terrible idea,” he said.
“Later on Wednesday, in the House of Commons, the business secretary said that ‘it did not necessarily make any sense’ to concrete over the wells.”
He urged the government and the Oil and Gas Authority to “formally withdraw their instruction to plug the wells”.
“If we are serious about energy security, as a very basic, first step we must not concrete up these wells, and then we need urgently to lift the shale gas moratorium and use these and additional wells to produce domestic shale gas,” he added.
The government says that while ministers can express a view on fracking they cannot tell an independent regulator like the Oil and Gas Authority what to do.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Labour’s shadow energy secretary, Ed Miliband, accused the government of being “completely all over the place” on its energy policy.
But Energy Minister Greg Hands replied: “He says we’re confused, but the government’s policy hasn’t changed.”