The moratorium announced by Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom today comes after a report by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) found that it is not possible to accurately predict the likelihood or scale of earthquakes linked to fracking.
Operations for shale gas in Lancashire have been suspended since a magnitude 2.9 tremor was recorded in August, while Third Energy did not receive consent to frack its well at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire amid fierce local opposition.
Opposition from protesters and public concern over environmental impacts have long thwarted the ambitions of energy companies and the Government to develop fracking in the UK.
The decision marks a pre-General Election U-turn for the Conservatives, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously describing fracking as “glorious news for humanity”.
In 2016, Mrs Leadsom, then Energy Minister, wrote in The Yorkshire Post about fracking: “I’m confident that in the decades to come people will view it as just another normal, safe industrial process.”
But she said today: “Whilst acknowledging the huge potential of UK shale gas to provide a bridge to a zero carbon future, I’ve also always been clear that shale gas exploration in the UK must be carried out safely.
“After reviewing the OGA’s report into recent seismic activity at Preston New Road, it is clear that we cannot rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community.
“For this reason, I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”
More properly known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a process in which liquid is pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release gas or oil trapped within it.
Conservatives fear the party’s support for fracking could cost it a number of marginal seats at the General Election.
And Professor Simon Sweeney from the University of York told the Tory conference last month that continued government support will lead to “overwhelming” public protests that will do “incredible damage” to Tory electoral hopes.
The National Audit Office estimates that at least £32.7m has been spent by public bodies since 2011 on dealing with policing, environmental monitoring and planning applications linked to hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.
Opposition to fracking has almost doubled, with government research showing that 40 per cent of people are against it, up from 21 per cent in 2013. Support for fracking has fallen from 27 per cent to 12 per cent.
Labour has promised to ban fracking “immediately” if it wins the General Election. It is also Liberal Democrat policy to ban the technology.
The Government says shale gas may help counteract the decline of domestic oil and gas production and reduce the UK’s reliance on oil and gas imports.
Steve Mason of the campaign group Frack Free United said: "This is a really great step in the right direction and we will be watching with interest on the next actions of all political parties. They must commit to the necessary action to dismantle the legislation backing fracking, and take the UK down a clean energy strategy.
"We also look forward to seeing the money that would have been spent on pushing fracking onto communities being used to support green energy, and the police and NHS.
"We will however, be remaining vigilant and believe all forms of extreme fossil fuel extraction should be included in this de facto ban. Our call has always been for an immediate halt to fracking and associated methods of unconventional oil and gas extraction in the UK, such as coal bed methane and acidisation."
Rebecca Long Bailey, Labour’s Shadow Business and Energy Secretary, said: “Facing earthquakes, air pollution and climate breakdown, communities across the UK fought back hard against Tory efforts to roll out fracking on a massive scale.
“When the Tory government overruled local democratic decisions to halt fracking, communities did not give up.
“When fracking protestors went to jail, communities did not give up.
“And now they have forced the government to U-turn in their support for a dirty industry once described by Boris Johnson as ‘glorious news for humanity.’”