Several billion barrels’ worth of shale oil could be extracted through the controversial process of fracking in southern England, according to a new report from the British Geological Survey (BGS).
The report, which is not yet published, identified areas such as Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Kent as potential drill sites.
It follows a similar BGS analysis from June last year, which estimated that huge reserves of frackable shale gas also sat beneath Lancashire and Yorkshire, though it is unclear how much can be economically extracted.
The news is likely to be welcomed by the government, which has sought to welcome fracking firms to the UK in a bid to lower domestic energy bills – as it has done in the US – and diversify energy supply.
In a recent review on the potential of shale gas exploitation, members of the House of Lords urged the government to make fracking a “national priority”.
This comes as ministers prepare unpopular plans to change the laws of trespass, giving fracking firms the right to frack beneath homes and private land.
According to reports, the government is set to announce increased compensation for communities affected by operations to alleviate people’s concern.
However, recent protests, particularly those that occurred in the Sussex village of Balcombe last year, suggest that many communities will not welcome the fracking industry.
Experts have warned that much more research is needed into the possible impacts of fracking on human health.
Meanwhile, numerous opinion polls show that the public’s concern over the possibility of shale gas firms beginning operations in the UK is rising, while support for the alternative of renewable energy has remained solid.
One YouGov poll published this week found that support for fracking has sunk to below 50%.
Such concern has lead to accusations that the government deliberately waited to release this latest BGS report until after the local and European elections on Thursday, hoping that the announcement of the results would also bury the story.
“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”, said environmental charity Friends of the Earth campaigner Brenda Pollack.
“No wonder the government waited until after the elections to make this announcement as Lord Howell recently warned that fracking will cost the Tories thousands of votes in their heartlands.”
Greenpeace energy campaigner Lawrence Carter also predicted that “a Klondike-style shale oil rush in the Home Counties” could cost the Conservatives dearly.
“Ministers are sticking two fingers up at the three quarters of Britain who are against giving frackers a free rein to drill under people’s homes,” he said.
“Dangling larger bribes in front of communities won’t quell their deep concerns about fracking. People know very well you can’t put a price on clean air and water, unspoilt countryside, and a stable climate.”
Campaigners urge the government to look to renewable energy, instead of shale gas and oil, for the future of the UK’s energy mix.
The news also comes as reports emerge that shale oil reserves in the US have been vastly overvalued, in a major blow to the industry.