Environment groups have refreshed calls for a ban on fracking after shale gas company Cuadrilla was forced to temporarily down tools at its site in Lancashire following the biggest earthquake to date at the project.

Cuadrilla said late on Wednesday that it would pause operations for 18 hours at its site at Preston New Road, near Blackpool, where it resumed fracking only last week.

An earth tremor measuring 1.55 on the Richter scale was recorded at the project shortly before 9pm on Wednesday, in excess of the 0.5 level at which companies are forced to suspend work under strict rules governing the industry. Operations cannot now resume until Friday.

Cuadrilla started fracking at Preston New Road last year but its work was interrupted on a number of occasions. The biggest tremor recorded at that time was 1.5, according to the British Geological Survey.

The disruptions last year meant the private equity-backed company was only able to partially frack one well but last week it started work on a second as it tries to gather more data to persuade policymakers and regulators that the rules governing seismic events should be loosened.

Jamie Peters, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the tremor on Wednesday showed it was “obvious that fracking can’t be done without triggering earthquakes”.

“Even small vibrations at ground level can be the sign of far more damaging impacts deep underground. Earthquake regulations must be maintained for the safety of local communities,” Mr Peters added.

But Cuadrilla insisted the tremor — which occurred after it had finished work for the day — would have been equivalent to a “large bag of shopping dropping to the floor”.

It said in a statement: “The Preston New Road exploration site is the most regulated and monitored site in Europe and the systems in place are working as they should. Minor movements of this level are to be expected and are way below anything that can cause harm or damage to anyone or their property.”

Fracking supporters in the UK, which also include the energy and petrochemicals giant Ineos, were given renewed hope last week that the rules on seismic events — known as the “traffic light system” — could be revised when the department run by the new business and energy secretary, Andrea Leadsom, opened the door to a possible review

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