Sussex is now on the front line of the controversial fracking revolution.
The Government announced yesterday it was lifting its ban on the shale gas extraction process, opening up dozens of drilling sites across the county.
The Argus has discovered that 15 licences for exploring Sussex’s reserves have already been issued by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
The areas covered by the permits span hundreds of thousands of acres of Sussex countryside and include towns and villages such as Balcombe, Midhurst, Petworth, Bolney, Haywards Heath, Crawley, Billinghurst, Barnham, Bognor, Uckfield and Crowborough.
Opponents of the extraction process say Sussex has the country’s second largest reserves of the precious energy source.
A spokesman for anti-fracking group Frack Off told The Argus Sussex could soon resemble a “Swiss cheese” as firms drilled up to 3,000 wells.
The lifting of the ban is subject to new controls which aim to reduce the risk of seismic activity.
Moves by gas company Cuadrilla to exploit the unconventional gas in Lancashire were put on hold after hydraulic fracturing caused two small earthquakes last year.
Energy Secretary Ed Davey said shale gas represented a promising new potential energy resource for the UK with £1.5 trillion worth of unexploited shale gas beneath the UK.
Cuadrilla hopes to secure the necessary planning permission and permits to resume fracking in the coming months and have initial data on the amount of gas it might be able to exploit from the shale near Blackpool by the middle of next year. Balcombe, near Haywards Heath, could follow in 2014.
Fracking involves blasting water and sand at high pressure, deep underground to cause mini-explosions which release shale gas.
A spokesman for anti-fracking group Frack Off, told The Argus: “Sussex is the second biggest part of the country for potential fracking sites.
“The exploitation of shale gas sites across the county runs the risk of the Sussex countryside being turned into something looking like a Swiss cheese."
There are 3,000 wells in the licence areas and eight per square mile.”
Cuadrilla, which is backed by former BP boss Lord Browne, has a licence to exploit shale gas in Balcombe, and could start work as soon as 2014.
The proposed Cuadrilla site is less than a mile away from a water reservoir that serves more than 65,000 homes.
Vanessa Vine, of Frack Free Sussex, said the Government’s decision “made no sense”.
She said: “I and the overwhelming majority of local people are feeling utterly disillusioned by the government's abject failure to act in the interests of the greater good on our behalf. In a recent Balcombe poll, more than 80% of local residents made it clear that they are vehemently opposed to hydraulic fracturing going ahead in the area.
“The Balcombe bore is 100 yards from the London to Brighton railway line, less than a mile from its Grade II listed viaduct, half a mile from the River Ouse, three quarters of a mile from Ardingly Reservoir, a mile from the village and two and a half miles from the Millennium Seed Bank.
“If Cuadrilla go ahead with their plans, residents will experience 24/7 noise, air pollution and a huge amount of heavy tanker traffic on roads that weren't built for it.”
But a spokesman for Cuadrilla, the company responsible for the site at Balcombe, dismissed the concerns.
He said: “These are absolutely groundless concerns. Balcombe is something we may do in 2014 but it would be a much smaller operation [compared to Lancashire].
“Lancashire is our concern at the moment. No plans will be made until testing on our five sites in Lancashire is complete. We can’t just turn up somewhere and drill. First of all we would have to test the site to see if it was suitable.
“Secondly there would be public consultations with residents and we would have to get permission from the health and safety executive as well as environmental health.
“The existing Balcombe oil well was drilled by Conoco in Autumn 1986 and was plugged and abandoned after the evaluation. “We have a planning permission from West Sussex County Council for further exploratory drilling, but have no plans to do so at present.”
Talking point: How concerned are you about fracking in Sussex?
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