Sussex is sat on a massive oil field that could lead to fracking all over the county.

A new report published yesterday by the British Geological Survey (BGS) revealed there could be more than eight billion barrels of shale oil under the Weald basin, which covers areas including Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent.

Experts say the discovery could produce enough energy to power the country for at least the next 40 years.

The fracking process involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock deep underground at high pressure to extract shale gas and oil.

Critics argue the process contaminates water supplies and can cause earthquakes. At sites already targeted by fracking firms, including the village of Balcombe, north of Haywards Heath, thousands of protestors have called for a ban on the method.

But despite the highly-publicised opposition, Government chiefs yesterday proposed new rules regarding energy companies' rights to access any land deemed suitable for fracking.

Currently, companies must negotiate rights of access with every landowner living above underground drilling - even though work takes place up to 5,000 feet beneath the surface.

The Government says the legal process of trying to access land is time consuming, uncertain and costly. If a landowner refuses access, energy companies or operators can refer the case to court to establish whether compulsory access should be granted.

Instead, ministers are proposing to “simplify” the procedure by granting energy firms underground access to land below 300 metres - nearly 1,000 feet - to extract shale oil and gas.

It is hoped the plans will speed up the introduction of fracking on a mass-scale.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change said communities targeted by fracking firms would be awarded around £20,000 for each lateral well dug at fracking sites.

The average fracking site boasts around ten wells, each with four lateral wells, making the average total of £800,000.

The payments would be made on top of the existing compensation system, where communities are given £100,000 when a test well is fracked - plus 1% of revenue.

Business and energy minister Michael Fallon claimed Britain needed more home-grown energy and shale development would “bring jobs and opportunities.”

He added: “We are keen for shale and geothermal exploration to go ahead while protecting residents through the robust regulation that is in place.

“These proposals allow shale and geothermal development while offering a fair deal for communities in return for underground access at depths so deep they will have no negative impact on landowners.”

Prime Minister David Cameron also recently claimed fracking would be "good for our country" and blamed a "lack of understanding" of the process for some opposition.

But Vanessa Vine, of Frack Free Sussex, said yesterday's announcement was deliberately timed to be delivered after the European and local elections to avoid public backlash.

She said: “The annual reports of the British Geological Survey show it is not averse to receiving funding from the oil and gas industry.

“Similar wild claims of recoverable shale reserves in California were this week exposed as being 96% overhyped and the Monterey shale boom is now bust.

“Why does an industry that purports to be an innocuous employment panacea and silver bullet for everybody's economy, feel the need - via invested government - to bribe councils not to oppose its operations?

“Does anybody need to ask themselves why industry and government waited until the day after the elections to announce 'huge shale oil reserves' in the Weald and £800,000 bribes to councils to accept fracking in communities?”

Speaking on the BBC's Newsnight programme on Thursday, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas said fracking would not bring down energy bills because the gas or oil would be sold on European markets and not used in the UK.

She said: "Even the boss of Cuadrilla has said fracking in Britain wouldn't reduce energy prices.

"Lord Stern has called it baseless economics and that's because here in the UK if we frack in the UK we don't actually use that gas or oil in the UK, it gets sold on European markets at the going price.

"That's very different from the States where because it's a much bigger country and they are less locked into those bigger world markets they use their own gas and oil as they frack.

"Even the experts, even the people who are in the forefront of the fracking ideology are saying actually that it's not going to lead to lower prices so if you want lower prices you need to go down the renewable route."

Dr Lucas spoke on the programme with Andrew Austin of IGas Energy, whose firm has already exploited oil and gas reserves in the south of England.

Mr Austin said: "We've known that there's a big potential for oil and gas exploration across the country but particularly in terms of oil in the Weald basin, which is the area that stretches roughly from Winchester across towards Gatwick, up to the M25 and down to the coast at Chichester.

"There's been a long history of oil and gas exploration in this area. We as a company produce oil and gas from around 20 sites across that area, around 40 million barrels have been recovered to date across that area."

Despite the lucrative discovery of shale oil beneath Sussex and neighbouring counties, the British Geological Survey emphasised the find was an estimate for the “entire volume of oil in the rock - not how much can be recovered”. It added it was “too early” to determine how much could technically be extracted at a commercial rate.

Professor Andrew Aplin, of Durham University, questioned how much of the oil found in the Weald basin was recoverable.

The professor of unconventional petroleum from the department of earth sciences said: "The interesting question is how much of the oil that has been identified might be recoverable.

"A careful look at the data in the report suggests that much of the oil in the shale is tightly bound to the rock and therefore difficult or impossible to produce.”

Brenda Pollack, south east regional campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said shale oil and gas was not the solution to the UK's energy problems.She said: "These latest estimates will set alarm bells ringing across the south east of England, where fracking firms seem intent on punching holes in some of Britain's most beautiful countryside in the search for profits.

"Shale oil and gas are not the solution to the UK's energy challenges. Rather than drilling for more dirty fossil fuels that will add to climate change, the Government should be backing renewable power and energy efficiency."

BOX - What parts of Sussex are the energy companies interested in?

Various energy companies already have licences for test-drilling across Sussex. They include:

BALCOMBE: The most high-profile is the site at Lower Stumble, one-mile south of the village of Balcombe. Cuadrilla Resources has been active at the site for more than a year and was given permission by West Sussex County Council to explore for shale gas through test drilling. Sussex Police made more than 100 arrests during a long-running operation which led to 29 convictions. The force spent more than £4 million manning protests, which were broadcast by international print and television media. Cuadrilla wrote to villagers in Balcombe in January to tell them the site, which they spent more than a month testing last year, was not suitable for fracking.

But the Staffordshire-based firm has since submitted a further planning application to “flow test” the site for more conventional extraction.

WOOD BARN FARM: The site near Billingshurst is of interest to Celtique Energie Ltd, which has also had an application accepted by West Sussex County Council. The firm told locals: “The target reservoir is the Triassic Sherwood Sandstone, anticipated to be 2.5km below the surface. No hydraulic fracturing techniques, or fracking, will be used at Woodbarn Farm”. But Frack Free Sussex said on “closer examination” the Triassic Sherwood Sandstone actually sits below the level of shale rock.

WISBOROUGH GREEN: Celtique Energie also plans to build an exploratory well site on land at Northup Copse, to the north-west of Wisborough Green. Locals fear plans for the site could pave the way for fracking. The firm's CEO Geoff Davies said last year his company wanted to test for “conventional fossil fuel deposits”, which they would not extract by fracking. But he did not rule out the possibility of applying for permission to frack if deposits of shale rock were found. The application is currently pending.

BOX - If fracking will help with the country's energy crisis, what's the problem?

Fracking involves drilling deep down into the earth and releasing high-pressure blasts of water, sand and chemicals in a bid to release shale gas inside rock.

Fracking is the nickname for hydraulic fracturing and refers to how the rock is fractured apart by the high pressure blast. Industry professionals refer to a "frac job" and a "frac unit".

The process has been used extensively in the United States, where some say it has re-formed the energy industry, created jobs and millions of dollars in revenue. Once derelict towns and villages have been transformed into thriving communities.

But the process has prompted environmental concerns.

For example, campaigners fear potentially carcinogenic chemicals used in fracking may escape and contaminate water supplies near fracking sites.

There are concerns fracking also causes earthquakes. Earthquakes of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude hit the Blackpool area in 2011 following fracking by Cuadrilla - the same firm interested in Sussex sites.

Other critics say fracking is a distracting governments from investing in renewable energy sources and is only a temporary fix to the energy crisis.