The British government has given the country's fledgling shale gas industry a major boost by approving the largest exploratory project ever and allowing horizontal drilling for the first time.
On Thursday, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid overturned a local council's objection to a shale gas project near Blackpool in northern England proposed by Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. Cuadrilla is planning to drill four wells in the area using horizontal drilling, a technique that is commonly used in Canada because the wells can reach more gas and oil trapped inside shale rock.
"Shale gas has the potential to power economic growth, support 64,000 jobs, and provide a new domestic energy source, making us less reliant on imports," Mr. Javid said in a statement. "We will take the big decisions that matter to the future of our country as we build an economy that works for everyone, not just the privileged few."
Fracking has been controversial in Britain and there has been growing opposition to the technique. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments have banned the process and the Labour Party recently said it would prohibit all fracking across the country. Fracking had not been allowed in England since 2011 after drilling in one area caused two minor earthquakes. That ban ended in May when the North Yorkshire council approved a small project near York, involving one exploratory well that does not involve horizontal drilling.
It's not clear how much shale gas there is in Britain but the British Geological Society has estimated that the largest deposit, known as the Bowland Shale, could contain enough gas to supply the country's needs for 50 years.
Cuadrilla hailed Mr. Javid's decision and indicated the government is close to approving another project in the area. "We are confident that our operations will be safe and responsible and the comprehensive site monitoring program planned by regulators and independent academics will in due course conclusively demonstrate this," the company's chief executive, Francis Egan, said in a statement.
Mr. Egan told the BBC that fracking is safe and less intrusive than mining or wind farms. "You can't see it, you can't hear it," he said. "It's quite unlike, for example, a wind farm which is quite visually intrusive; we need them but they are quite visually intrusive and quite noisy."
But local residents and environmental groups are furious at the decision and have vowed to seek a judicial review. "It is deplorable that an industry which has been rejected on every level seems to believe it is acceptable to inflict itself on an unwilling county," said Pat Davies, chair of the Preston New Road Action Group, a local organization opposed to the project. "That is neither right, nor fair and not least, it is wholly undemocratic … This is not the end. We will challenge this."
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth also vowed to challenge the decision.
Michael Bradshaw, a professor of global energy at the University of Warwick, said the government's decision is a big step forward for the industry.
"It's the first significant drilling program," Prof. Bradshaw said in an interview. "It's a chance for the industry to demonstrate that it can carry out horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing with the kind of minimal impact it's told the public it will have. But obviously, if it doesn't go right, there's a lot of jeopardy here as well."
He added that no one knows how much gas Britain can produce through fracking. "This program of drilling is exploratory. It's to find out whether using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing the gas will flow at rates which will make it commercially viable. We don't know the answer to that," he said.
The decision was the first fracking approval by the Conservative government under new Prime Minister Theresa May. Her predecessor, David Cameron, had been a strong proponent of fracking, saying at one point the country was going all out for shale. Ms. May has taken a more low key approach, concentrating more on seeking to compensate communities where fracking occurs.