RISKS of fracking have been “exaggerated” and should not be ruled out in national parks, according to the head of the Environment Agency.

Agency chairman Christopher Smith said hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – could be “useful” in helping Britain to reduce its reliance on imported gas because it causes “minimal visual intrusion” to the environment.

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

There is potentially more than eight billion barrels of shale oil under the Weald basin in Sussex – but critics argue the process contaminates water supplies and can cause earthquakes.

Lord Smith, who is due to step down next month, said he did not agree with the concerns of anti-fracking campaigners.

He told a national newspaper: “The campaigners fall into two camps. One is very much campaigning against the local impact of drilling at particular sites.

“Provided it’s done carefully and proper regulated, those fears are definitely exaggerated. There’s another set of campaigners who say, ‘This is a better fuel to burn than coal but it’s still a fossil fuel and we ought to be putting everything into renewable and not doing shale gas at all’.

“I don’t agree that with analysis because we aren’t yet ready to see 100 percent of our energy requirements being produced from renewables.”

He said he would not rule out fracking in national parks like the South Downs because “provided it’s being done properly, the visual impact can be very limited indeed. It will depend on any individual location”.

He said: “The South Downs National Park Authority is currently considering an application from Celtique Energie to exploratory drill for shale oil and gas in Fernhurst, near Chichester.”

Energy company Cuadrilla Resources has been actively testing at a site in Balcombe for more than a year, but has ruled out fracking.

A spokeswoman from Britain and Ireland Frack Free said: “Lord Smith’s view on fracking is an indication that the government, and agencies, are wilfully choosing to ignore the large amount of peer reviewed scientific reports that prove fracking is not and cannot be made safe. The continued reference by agencies and individuals that fracking will be ‘safe’ if ‘properly regulated’ is a betrayal to the public.”

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