Britain’s richest man has demanded that the government relaxes earthquake restrictions around fracking or ban the controversial oil-drilling practice altogether.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder of petrochemicals giant Ineos, accused ministers of lacking a “basic understanding of the Richter scale” and implementing unworkable rules that are hampering his fracking ambitions. 

The entrepreneur stands to increase his £21bn fortune if fracking can become successful in the UK as his company owns more shale drilling licences than any other firm.

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Current rules state that drilling must be brought to a halt if any seismic activity near a site exceeds 0.5 on the Richter scale, a level Ineos described as “absurd”.

The company accused the government of using “politically expedient, slippery back-door manoeuvres to end shale”.

Ministers have championed controversial shale gas extraction, and in 2018 gave the green light to a site in Lancashire, the first fracking operation in the UK for seven years.

However, business at the Preston New Road site has been repeatedly put on hold by Cuadrilla – a fossil fuel exploration company – due to minor earth tremors.

Fracking involves pumping jets of high-pressure water into gaps between rock formations in order to extract oil and gas. The process is known to cause minor earthquakes.

But Sir Jim pointed to more permissive regulation in the US which allows quakes to measure up to 4.0 before drilling is stopped.  

“To put that into perspective, magnitude 4.0 is 3,162 times higher than 0.5 and 177,827 times stronger in terms of energy release,” he said.

Environmental groups condemned the company’s claims on Monday. Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK said fracking companies have sought to reassure the public that the procedure is safe because rules are tougher here than in the US.

“Now that the industry is having trouble sticking to UK regulations, we’re assured US regulations are perfectly adequate and should be copied here,” Dr Parr said.

“We do not feel reassured. The first well to be fracked in the UK had to be abandoned because it suffered deformation from tremors of less than 2.3 on the Richter scale. 

“But now Ineos are telling us that tremors many times stronger than this are completely safe. What this really means is that Ineos have discovered that it is impossible to frack safely in the UK, and so they want permission to frack unsafely.”

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Ineos said the availability of “clean and abundant” gas has rejuvenated manufacturing in North America and could have a similar effect here. Several studies have found that shale gas extraction is more environmentally damaging than traditional methods

Sir Jim accused the government of “playing politics with the future of the country”.

He added: “We have a non-existent energy strategy and are heading towards an energy crisis that will do long-term and irreparable damage to the economy and the government needs to decide whether they are finally going to put the country first and develop a workable UK onshore gas industry.”

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