Balcombe in West Sussex has become a focal point for anti-fracking protest

Fracking 'won't ruin countryside' says Caudrilla boss

The boss of energy company Cuadrilla has said it has "no intention of ruining the countryside and won't ruin the countryside".

Francis Egan insisted hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was safe and would not pose a threat to the public or people's drinking water as anti-fracking protesters started a seventh day of action at the site of a Caudrilla exploratory oil well in Balcombe, West Sussex.

He said "significant" amounts of oil and gas could be made available through fracking in the UK, but acknowledged his firm's activities had been delayed as a result of protests against its exploratory drilling activities.

The company's plan for Balcombe, which is at the centre of high-profile anti-fracking protests, was for exploratory oil drilling and not fracking, he said.

The sensitivity of the subject was highlighted after former government energy adviser Lord Howell issued an apology for suggesting the hydraulic fracturing technique could be used in "desolate" north-east England without any impact on the surrounding environment.

Reacting to those comments, Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, told BBC Radio 5 Live: "I live in the north-east of the country, and certainly from where I look it's not desolate.

"Our decisions are made on environmental assessments and going through a fairly rigorous process with the Environment Agency and the planning authority, and that really dictates where we can and can't operate."

The controversial method of fracking involves high pressure liquid being pumped deep underground to split shale rock and release gas supplies.

Although Cuadrilla has said it only plans exploratory oil drilling near Balcombe, campaigners fear the company will go on to frack in the area, leading to potential water contamination and environmental damage.

But Egan tried to soothe public fears. He said: "We've no intention of ruining the countryside and we won't ruin the countryside." He added that fracking would pose no harm.

"Yes, it is certainly safe," he said. "What you hear and what you read about is not always what we are actually doing. For example, people say we inject all kinds of chemicals.

"I can assure you that anything that is put into the ground has to go through the Environment Agency and it has to be approved by them."

He said anything used will be "non-hazardous and will not pose a threat to the public or people's drinking water".

The plans around Balcombe have thrust the village into the national spotlight over the issue of fracking with large numbers of police deployed to ensure lorries carrying equipment into the testing site are unhindered by protesters.

The process was "not a major engineering activity", Egan said. It will take around a couple of months and involve a six-inch hole in the ground. He added: "It's not going to pose a threat to Balcombe."

He told Radio 4's 'Today' programme that he accepted the right to protest, but said it raised a wider issue about the willingness to exploit the UK's natural resources.

He said: "We have certainly been delayed. There are a lot of protesters, we have no issue with peaceful protest in Balcombe, we respect people's rights to do that. I think the wider argument is, frankly, is the UK capable of developing its own natural resources or not?"

He said there was still "a lot of education" to be done and added: "Once a well is actually drilled and people see what actually happens, as opposed to what they may fear or may have read is alleged to have happened somewhere else, it will be quite different."

Asked if it would be possible to extract significant amounts of fossil fuels in areas well away from people's homes, Egan sidestepped the question, saying: "We could get significant oil and gas out of the ground doing fracking in this country full stop, if we choose to do so. It's perfectly possible to do it in a regulated environment, in a safe fashion."

Pressed on whether that would have to be close to people's homes, Egan replied simply: "We would have to do it in a regulated fashion."

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