LONDON, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- British Prime Minister David Cameron said this week the country "cannot afford" to miss out on the benefits of controversial shale gas development.
Writing in an article appearing Monday in The Daily Telegraph, Cameron gave strong backing to the exploration and tapping of Britain's considerable shale gas reserves, despite persistent opposition from environmentalists and local activists who contend the production process is harmful.
Shale gas is separated from the rock formations that hold it through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which streams of highly pressurized liquid containing water, sand and chemicals are pumped through the formations.
Opponents say the toxic chemicals can contaminate groundwater, but Cameron and other backers counter the risks can be managed safely through proper regulation.
"Fracking has become a national debate in Britain -- and it's one that I'm determined to win," the prime minister wrote. "If we don't back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive."
His message to the country, he added, "is clear -- we cannot afford to miss out on fracking."
The British Geological Survey has estimated there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas in northern England, while plans are also on the table for exploration in the "home counties" of southeastern England.
Shale gas developer Cuadrilla announced this year the first exploration well in the region would be drilled this summer. The company, which drew widespread protests when its fracking activities in northern county of Lancashire were determined to have caused a small earthquake, said it would drill at Balcombe in Sussex.
Protesters have staged demonstrations in the village this month, continuing to oppose the drilling process despite a promise by Cuadrilla to offer $155,000 in community benefits for each well drilled.
Cameron said fracking "has real potential to drive energy bills down" at a time when British families and businesses are "really struggling with the high costs of energy." He noted that in the United States, which has seen 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year, enjoys gas prices 3 1/2 times lower than in Britain.
The prime minister also touted fracking's potential to create jobs, citing a study predicting 74,000 new jobs could be supported.
Meanwhile, he called it a "myth" that fracking can or should be contained to northeastern England after former Conservative Party adviser David Howell -- father-in-law of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne -- said last month mining should only be carried out there because it was filled with "desolate" areas.
"I want all parts of our nation to share in the benefits: north or south, Conservative or Labor. We are all in this together," Cameron said, adding, "If neighborhoods can see the benefits -- and are reassured about its effects on the environment -- then I don't see why fracking shouldn't receive real public support."
Opponents who fear the despoiling of the English countryside by hundreds of new fracking wells also were victims of "myths," Cameron asserted.
"Shale gas pads are relatively small -- about the size of a cricket pitch," he wrote. "But more than that, similar types of drilling have been taking place for decades in this country without any real protest."