LONDON, United Kingdom - The controversial process of "fracking" will be halted in England due to the risks of triggering earthquakes when trying to tap shale gas reserves, the British government announced Saturday.
"After reviewing the... report into recent seismic activity at Preston New Road, it is clear that we cannot rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community," Business and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom said, referring to energy firm Cuadrilla's site in Lancashire, northwest England.
"For this reason, I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect."
The recent Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) report found that it was not currently possible to accurately predict hydraulic fracturing's potential for triggering earthquakes, leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to say he had "very considerable anxieties" about the extraction of shale gas.
The decision comes weeks before Britain goes to the polls in a general election, with the issue expected to be raised during campaigning.
Opposition to shale gas extraction among the British public had risen to 40 percent from 21 percent since 2013, according to the National Audit Office.
"Public concern has centered on the risks to the environment and public health, from fracking-induced earthquakes, and the adequacy of the environmental regulations in place," it said.
Protests broke out as last year as work began on Britain's first horizontal shale gas well at Cuadrilla's Preston New Road site.
The project attracted much controversy and was opposed by local authorities, residents and environmentalists, who launched legal action to block operations.
Cuadrilla's first attempt at fracking seven years ago was ended after it triggered minor earthquakes, putting their plans on hold while more stringent measures were put in place.
But the High Court ruled last October that it did "not consider that any of the grounds of challenge raise a serious issue to be tried".
Cuadrilla announced in November that it had shale gas flowing for the first time since the ban.
Fracking uses hydraulic pressure to break up underground rock, allowing the flow of previously trapped gas.
The British Geological Survey estimates that the site Cuadrilla is exploring holds up to 2,300 trillion cubic feet (90 trillion cubic meters) of shale gas.
The amount could theoretically fill Britain's natural gas needs for more than a thousand years.
But UK gas production rates have been falling and it became a net importer of the fuel in 2004.
The government said Saturday it would "take a presumption against issuing any further Hydraulic Fracturing Consents" unless new evidence is provided.
Tom Fyans, deputy chief executive of countryside charity CPRE, called it a "fantastic win".
"Today we celebrate alongside the local communities, campaigners and environmentalists who have been campaigning valiantly to stop fracking for many years.
"This is a fantastic win for local democracy and everyone who cares about protecting the countryside from climate catastrophe and mass industrialization."