Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said Monday the government must act carefully as it frees up access to shale reserves.
"Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth," he said in a statement. "As one of the cleanest fossil fuels, shale gas can be a key part of the UK's answer to climate change and a bridge to a much greener future."
The government announced it was opening up the bidding process for shale deposits in the country. The British Geological Survey last year estimated the Bowland shale formation in the north of the country contains 1.3 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas
Hancock said the licenses are a first step in shale exploitation. Companies would need additional health and safety permits before proceeding with the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Simon Clydesdale, a campaigner with environmental advocacy group Greenpeace, said in a statement "there could be a high political price to pay for this shale steamroller at next year's general election."
Critics worry some of the chemicals used in the drilling process pose a threat to groundwater. A series of earthquakes were associated with the drilling practice.