THE Government is to decide whether ‘fracking’ – the controversial form of gas extraction – should be allowed in Oxfordshire.

A 347sq mile expanse in the north of the county has been identified as a possible source of shale gas by the British Geological Survey.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is currently deciding whether to grant a licence that would allow firms to tap an area between Banbury, Bicester and Kidlington for gas.

But campaigners are concerned the technique can cause damage to the environment. Keith Taylor, Green MEP for Oxfordshire, is touring the county with a film about fracking this month. He said: “Residents of Oxfordshire are right to be concerned about shale gas extraction. “Fracking has serious environmental consequences.

“Only last week a study has shown that the drinking water near homes around fracking sites in Pennsylvania has been contaminated by methane, ethane and propane.”

Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into underground rock to fracture it and release trapped gas.

The area in Oxfordshire is being considered for a licence because of the types of natural material beneath the ground. Prof Stephen Hesselbo, of Oxford University’s Earth Sciences department, said: “It has been known for more than 100 years that the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire region is underlain by a variety of sedimentary rocks types, including shale, and locally they have generated gas.

“It is another question whether these strata have the attributes to be commercially viable for gas exploitation or not.”

Licensing is being undertaken in rounds. The Department of Energy and Climate Change says the results for the 14th round, of which North Oxfordshire will be a part, should be released next year.

So far 176 licences for onshore oil and gas exploration have been issued across the UK and the Government says it expects “considerable interest from developers” in the 14th round.

Environmentalists have warned that drilling could scar the countryside, pollute water supplies, hit house prices and lead to roads clogged with lorries transporting equipment.

Two small earthquakes of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude have hit the Blackpool area following fracking, in the only investigative dig to have taken place in the UK.

According to energy expert Nicholas Newman, if an oil or gas company takes an interest in the gas reserves it is possible that shale gas production could come to Oxfordshire in the next decade.

He said: “There is a lot of hype surrounding the issue because it is new. “If it is done to EU standards and regulations it is no different in terms of safety from oil drilling.

“An expansion in production of shale gas will reduce the UK’s need to import and improve its position at future negotiating tables. It could be commercially viable in Oxfordshire in 10 years.”

Oxfordshire County Council spokesman Martin Crabtree said the authority was aware of potential shale gas reserves. It would consider any planning application against relevant national and local policy.

He said: “We are not in discussion with any energy companies or other organisations about proposals for gas exploration or fracking in Oxfordshire.”

Last month the Government announced measures to enable shale gas drilling as part of its infrastructure plans. With shale gas resources far greater than previously thought, it described shale gas as “an exciting energy resource” which could revolutionise Britain’s energy supply.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey said the Government recognised the concerns of residents, but new conditions would cut risk from seismic activity.

What is it?

  • FRACKING is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing to extract gas from rock.
  • The process involves drilling thousands of feet into the earth before a high pressure water mixture is directed at the rock, causing gas to flow out to the head of the well.
  • It is not conventional natural gas, but gas that has been trapped in shale and clay.
  • It is extensively used in America where it revolutionised the energy industry and sent energy prices tumbling.
  • There were worries in this country in 2011 when an area near Blackpool was hit by earth tremors following fracking.
  • Large areas of the UK are now being assessed for possible exploitation.
  • Experts say Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire region is underlain by a variety of sedimentary rock types, including shale that would generate gas.