Britain’s richest man has called the government’s attitude to fracking for gas “pathetic”, accusing ministers of listening to a vocal minority rather than looking at the science.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe, whose firm Ineos is conducting exploratory fracking tests, said the north of England was sitting on potential huge energy resources.
But restrictions were making it unviable for firms, he told the BBC.
On Monday, the UK’s shale gas tsar resigned after just six months.
Natascha Engel, a former Labour MP, said fracking was being throttled by rules preventing mini earthquakes.
Current government rules mean fracking must be suspended every time a 0.5 magnitude tremor is detected. But Ms Engel said the cautious approach to tremors had created a de facto ban on fracking.
Mr Ratcliffe said he agreed with Ms Engel’s criticism. “I think the government has been pathetic on the subject, frankly – honestly, I do,” Mr Ratcliffe said.
The government was listening to “a very vocal, but a miniscule, minority of people, and I think there’s a high degree of ignorance”.
Mr Ratcliffe, whose company is carrying out tests in Nottinghamshire and has exploration rights in Yorkshire and Cheshire, believes the UK could emulate the shale gas boom in the US.
“America today is self sufficient in oil and gas… and it is because of this new technology, which is extremely safe and well proven,” he said. With the demise of huge swathes of manufacturing in the north of England, expansion of the fracking industry would be a big creator of jobs, he added.
He told the BBC’s sports editor Dan Roan: “I feel really strongly that the northern economy is really important to the UK, and fracking has been so successful in America – it’s transformed places like Pittsburgh.
“We’ve got towns in England which are not the happiest of places at the moment, so it makes me cross when people don’t look at the science.”
Ineos and Cuadrilla – which is already fracking for shale gas – have faced major protests from campaigners who say the process is environmentally unfriendly and causes earth tremors.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure in order to split rock formations and release gas. A number of countries have banned the process, including France and Germany.
The UK government defended its record on fracking against Mr Ratcliffe’s criticism. A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government supports the shale industry “because we believe it could have the potential to be a new domestic energy source, and create thousands of well paid, quality jobs”.
“We’ve worked to develop world-leading regulations based on the advice of scientists and in consultation with industry. We are confident these strike the right balance in ensuring the industry can develop, while ensuring any operations are carried out safely and responsibly,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Ratcliffe has taken over cycling’s Team Sky, and the renamed Team Ineos will compete in the Tour de Yorkshire on Thursday. There have been reports that environmental campaigners could protest along the route.
The billionaire rejected criticism that his move into cycling was an attempt to “greenwash” Ineos. “It’s nothing to do with it at all,” he said. “The sport is totally different.”
But Simon Bowers, of Friends of the Earth, said Ineos’s “highjacking” of cycling was “shameless”, adding: “Ineos’s plans for fracking are completely incompatible with fighting climate change. Fossil fuels have no place in sports sponsorship.”
The pro-Brexit businessman also dismissed reports about him allegedly leaving the UK to live in Monaco. “I don’t live in Monaco, I can tell you that,” he said.
But is he thinking about a move? “I don’t really want to talk about where I live because that’s my own private affair. But we have invested £2.5bn in the UK in the last 20 years… and I have never made a penny of profit in the UK. I’m many hundreds of millions short of getting that back.
“I have made lots of money in the US, Germany and Belgium, but am I supposed to go and live there? It’s my private affair,” he said.