After months of debate over the importance of shale gas and its controversial extraction technique, Prime Minister David Cameron has made his boldest defence yet of hydraulic fracturing.

The PM argued millions of people will benefit from cheaper energy bills, thousands of new jobs and generous windfalls for communities and insisted drilling would only result in “very minor changes to landscape”.

With generous tax breaks in the offing and enthusiastic Government-level support, fracking might look like an increasing certainty.

Yet the rural location of many exploration sites pits Cameron against traditional Conservative supporters.

With an estimated 6,700 wells required to extract just 10% of the county’s gas reserves, Sussex has become a battleground for the anti-frackingmovement.

Thousands of new activists are expected to arrive at Lower Stumble on Friday ranging from UKUncut and Occupy, to Disabled People Against Cuts and Greater London Pensioners Association.

With protesters fearful about possible earthquakes, water contamination and carbon emissions from a newbounty of gas, the Government may be in for a long fight.

Recent estimates suggest that about 1,3000 trillion cubic feet of shale gas lie underneath Britain, a tenth of which would be the equivalent of 51 years’ gas supply.

David Cameron describes it as a “reservoir of untapped energy” that will help millions of hard-working people across the country.

Some 74,000 jobs would be created in the shale gas industry, while £100,000 would be given to every community near an exploratory well.

If shale gas is successfully extracted, 1% of revenue, up to £10 million, will go back to residents for council tax reductions or school funding, for example.

Mr Cameron dismissed energy fears saying the UK had one of the most stringent regulatory systems in the world with no reason to worry about water contamination.

The Argus: David Cameron

On one of the most emotive parts of the debate, the PM added: “Our countryside is one of the most precious things we have in Britain and I would never sanction something that might ruin our landscapes and scenery.

 “The South Downs National Park remains one of the most beautiful parts of Britain, yet it has become home to conventional oil and gas drilling since the ’80s. The huge benefits of shale gas outweigh any very minor changes to the landscape.

“My message is clear – we cannot afford to miss out on fracking.”

But the expensive and intensive drilling process have raised questions about the suitability of fracking in rural Britain, which involves pumping large quantities of water and chemicals underground to fracture the shale rock and release the natural gas.

According to one estimate 6,700 wells would be needed in Sussex to extract just a tenth of the reserves.

Caudrilla is testing the ground at Balcombe while Celtique Energie is hoping to drill in Wisborough Green and Fernhurst.

Concerns range from destruction of wildlife and the of the drinking water supply and earthquakes.

While some fears can be dismissed as myths others are backed up by credible sources.

Last month official body Water UK warned fracking could lead to contamination of drinking supplies if not carefully carried out.

Meanwhile south-western American communities are dealing with the consequences of ten years of intensive drilling.

A combination of drought and the industry’s massive thirst for water, has left reservoirs low and a risk of running out of tap water.

The Argus: Anti-fracking protests set to carry on at oil drilling site in Balcombe

Meanwhile environmental groups have dismissed the PM’s defence of fracking.

Andrew Pendleton, Friends of the Earth’s head of campaigns, said: “David Cameron’s case for fracking simply doesn’t add up – there’s plenty of expert evidence that fracking in Britain won’t lead to cheaper fuel bills.

“It poses a real threat to their environment and quality of life and will keep the nation hooked on dirty fossil fuels.

“The PM should stop overhyping fracking and get on with the job of reaping the huge economic benefits of being at the forefront of a clean industrial revolution.”

According to recent findings by the Grantham Research Institute 60% to 80% of fossil reserves must remain in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Meanwhile the claim that UK shale gas will bring down prices has been disputed by Deutsche Bank, Chatham House, and OFGEM.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast that natural gas prices will rise by 40% by 2020 – even with an influx of cheap shale gas.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, pictured below, said: “By repeating the myth that fracking will mean lower energy bills, David Cameron disregards the opinion of a range of energy and industry experts.

“And by so zealously pursuing the drive to extract more fossil fuel from the ground, he is seriously undermining efforts to address the global climate crisis.

“If the Prime Minister really believes that there will only be a ‘very minor change to the landscape’, he might want to look again at the figures.

“According to some estimates, exploiting 10% of the UK’s shale gas resources would require around 110,000 wells, or an average of 160-170 per parliamentary constituency.”

The Argus:

Vanessa Vine, who has led protests as a Balcombe resident and chair of Frack Free Sussex, also dismissed Mr Cameron’s intervention.

She said: “With its bizarre and disturbing mania to force this ecocidal industry upon us, the Tory agenda on fracking is approaching Goebbels lie proportions.

“The Prime Minister’s desperate and dishonest treatise is utterly jaw-dropping and shows him to be on an increasingly desperate trajectory of political suicide.”

Petra Billings, of Sussex Wildlife Trust, raised the potentially “devastating impacts” of fracking at a proposed site near Wisborough Green.

She said: “This is an ancient woodland which has probably existed here since at least 1600.

It has been managed historically as hazel coppice with oak standards, a traditional system of management which supports a high biodiversity, including woodland flowers, birds, butterflies, badgers and rare bats.

“These nocturnal animals are sensitive to light, and continuous lighting of the drill site has the potential to cause serious disturbance to wildlife, not to mention the noise and activity.

Activists expected at site

The Argus:

After just a few weeks of protests at Balcombe and around 30 arrests the scene will escalate with the arrival of potentially thousands of new activists under the Reclaim the Power camp.

The campaigners will arrive on Friday for a week of direct action and civil disobedience, alongside UKUncut, Occupy, Disabled People Against Cuts, Greater London Pensioners Association and Fuel Poverty Action.

Ewa Jasiewicz, a spokesperson for No Dash for Gas, said: “We are expecting in excess of 500 at least. Due to the proximity of the camp to London, it could be in the thousands.

“In the past when there have been climate flashpoints like this – the runway at Heathrow or Kingsnorth coal-fired power station at Kent – we’ve had thousands of people.”

The police operation has already cost in excess of £73,000 in logistical support and overtime – not including the 100 officers a day patrolling the site every day.

Supt Lawrence Hobbs, operation lead, said: “The Reclaim the Power camp has publicised that they will share ideas, strengthen links and share skills in direct action and civil disobedience to take action against the Cuadrilla site.

“We know that the vast majority of protesters feel very passionately about issues and will protest peacefully. If protesters choose to become violent and commit any criminal act they should understand that this is not acceptable and they will be arrested.”

Bill Acraman, county councillor for Worth Forest, which includes Balcombe, said: “I’m against fracking but I think the protest is counter-productive. They’ve got tents, drums and music – it’s like Glastonbury Festival. It puts normal people off.”

‘I’m determined to win debate’

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Prime Minister David Cameron, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said: “Fracking has become a national debate in Britain and it’s one that I’m determined to win. If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive. Without it, we could lose ground in the tough global race.

“Gas and electric bills can go down when our home-grown energy supply goes up.

We’re not turning our back on low carbon energy, but these sources aren’t enough.

“This reservoir of untapped energy will help people across the country who work hard and want to get on. Even if we only see a fraction of the impact shale gas has had in America, we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country.

“Fracking will create jobs in Britain. One recent study predicted that 74,000 posts could be supported by a thriving shalegas industry in this country.

“Companies have agreed to pay £100,000 to every community situated near an exploratory well where they’re looking to see if shale gas exists. If gas is then extracted, 1 per cent of the revenue will go straight back to residents who live nearby.

“I want all parts of our nation to share in the benefits: north or south, Conservative or Labour. We are all in this together.

“Local people will not be cut out and ignored. We want people to get behind fracking, and a transparent planning process is an important ingredient.

“International evidence shows there is no reason why the process should cause contamination of water supplies or other environmental damage, if properly regulated. And the regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world.

“Our countryside is one of the most precious things we have in Britain and I would never sanction something that might ruin our landscapes and scenery.

The South Downs National Park remains one of the most beautiful parts of Britain, yet it has been home to conventional oil and gas drilling since the Eighties. The huge benefits of shale gas outweigh any very minor change to the landscape.

“We cannot afford to miss out on fracking. For centuries Britain has led the way in technological endeavour. Fracking is part of this tradition, so let’s seize it.”

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