Britain debates fracking

Britain plans to begin shale gas extraction despite growing popular opposition, with local officials in northern England stuck in a dilemma on whether to authorise the first fracking operations.

Lancashire County Council had been due to decide this week on two extraction sites planned by shale company Cuadrilla but on Wednesday postponed the ruling as a crowd of protesters rallied outside.

Scotland made its own opposition clear on Wednesday, with the regional government there announcing a temporary moratorium on any fracking, which involves blasting water, sand and chemicals underground.

"Once Fracked No Going Back!" and "Don't Poison Our Land" read signs held up by some of the 250 protesters at a rally in Preston in Lancashire, which included a robot-like figure made out of pipeline.

Helen Rimmer, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said that the delay "created more uncertainty for communities whose health and environment are at risk".

Cuadrilla plans to start operations by the end of 2015 and has promised extensive "mitigation measures" to minimise the impact on local residents.

Prime Minister David Cameron has made shale gas an economic priority to diversify energy sources away from a reliance on dwindling North Sea oil reserves, looking to its boom in the United States as a model.

But there is trenchant opposition from environmentalists and many local residents across Britain in areas identified as potential reserves, mainly concentrated in northern England.

The government made one concession on Monday, agreeing to ban fracking in national parks outright.

But an attempt by a group of British MPs to pass a moratorium was overwhelmingly voted down by parliament in London since both the main parties -- Cameron's Conservatives and the Labour opposition -- support it.

"We are prepared to push the boundaries of scientific endeavour, including in controversial areas, because Britain has always been a pioneer," British finance minister George Osborne said earlier.

"The country that was the first to extract oil and gas from deep under the sea should not turn its back on new sources of energy like shale gas because it's all too difficult," he said.

Scientists at the British Geological Survey estimate that shale gas reserves are "abundant" but there are few estimates on exactly how much there is.

There have been several exploratory drillings in recent years but opponents say the drive for shale gas could be undermined by the drop in energy prices.

They also see more immediate risks, like earthquakes.

Cuadrilla had to interrupt a previous drilling test in 2011 in northeast England after tremors and was allowed to resume only once stronger checks were in place.

Still, companies have said they are keen to invest.

Ineos, a chemical group based in Switzerland, in 2014 said it planned to spend $US1 billion ($A1.26 billion) on shale gas in Britain in order to become the biggest player on the market.

But while the government looks to the economic revival that shale gas has brought in the US, Lancashire is deeply divided.

Local supporters say it will bring much-needed investment and jobs to a former industrial hub, while opponents warn of the disruption it could cause.

Critics won a key victory earlier in January when planners published recommendations arguing against the projects, stressing the impact of noise.

Some 240 local businesses and trade unions have signed a petition against fracking.

"I believe tourism and agriculture would be seriously affected. Would you take your family on holiday to a gas field?" asked Karen Ditchfield, one of the signatories and a local business owner.

The citizen advocacy network Avaaz said its own petition against fracking in Lancashire had garnered more than 46,000 signatures, accusing Osborne of wanting to "transform Lancashire into Texas".

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