LONDON, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- British officials have denied a report indicating energy ministers are preparing to open 60 percent of the countryside to a shale natural gas exploration boom.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change issued a statement Saturday calling the report in The Independent "nonsense."
"It is too early to assess the potential for shale gas but the suggestion more than 60 percent of the U.K. countryside could be exploited is nonsense," the department said in statement.
The Independent's report indicated that based on DECC maps it had obtained, "more than 32,000 square miles -- or 64 percent of the countryside -- could potentially be exploited for shale gas and is being considered for exploration licenses."
The newspaper said the maps included "vast swathes" in the South of England, the Northwest, Northeast and the Central Belt in Scotland.
"There is a big difference between the amount of shale gas that might exist and what can be extracted," the agency spokesman said. "We have commissioned the British Geological Survey to do an assessment of the U.K.'s shale gas resources, which will report its findings next year."
The article came as anti-shale gas protests were carried out around Britain Saturday in anticipation of a statement from Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne this week on the government's position regarding support for shale gas.
The government imposed a moratorium on the hydraulic fracturing drilling process used in shale gas production after energy company Cuadrilla Resources was determined to have started minor earthquakes by drilling last year in Lancashire, England.
Cuadrilla issued a report confirming it was "highly probable" that a 2.3-magnitude tremor and a 1.5-magnitude quake felt in near Blackpool in April and May 2011 were due to "fracking" at the company's shale gas wells there.
Under the process, rocks are fractured thousands of feet underground using high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to free natural gas trapped in the formations.
The procedure has come under heavy criticism from environmentalists, who say it has the potential to pollute groundwater as well as cause earthquakes.
That moratorium will be lifted soon by British Energy Secretary Ed Davey, paving the way for Osborne to announce the creation a new Office for Shale Gas to coordinate and speed up production in a "dash for gas," the newspaper said.
About 300 protesters gathered in London, laying a mock pipeline in Grosvenor Square from the Canadian High Commission to the U.S. Embassy, later marching to Parliament Square, where they erected an imitation 23-foot "fracking rig," the BBC reported.
Another protest was in Somerset in southwestern England, where four shale gas exploration licenses have been granted, ITV reported.
"Fracking for shale gas and coal bed methane is an uneconomical and 'eco-cidal' attempt to address Britain's critical energy needs," Vanessa Vine of the protest group Britain and Ireland Frack Free said in a statement. "Landscapes would be despoiled, water courses irreparably contaminated and we would have poured countless tons of methane and CO2 into the atmosphere."
The group called on British Prime Minister David Cameron to "stand by his claim of leading the 'greenest government ever'" and order an immediate ban on "this unintelligent and short-sighted dash for gas," investing instead in "safe and truly renewable energy generation."