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Britain sees gold in shale gas and oil belts

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 6:12 p.m.

Shale gas and oil may hold the key to Britain's energy troubles.

The rolling countryside south of London is called the stockbroker belt for the residents who pay 50 percent above the British average to live in pristine villages. But there's shale oil under them there lawns.

Two areas of Surrey and Sussex hold 700 million barrels of recoverable shale oil, or more than a year's supply for Britain, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates.

The advent of drilling near mansions in the Wessex and Weald basins may widen the nation's shale energy debate, which has focused on gas in northwest England, hundreds of miles from London.

“The rock in the Weald is splendid; it's extremely good for shale oil,” said Fivos Spathopoulos, a visiting lecturer of petroleum geology at London's Imperial College who studied the basin for about seven years. “If it works, it'll be big, but we won't know exactly how big until we drill.”

The British government plans tax breaks to stimulate a shale industry that can buoy domestic supply as North Sea output dwindles and imports rise.

Celtique plans to drill a well next year at Fernhurst in West Sussex, where the average house price tops $722,000.

The British government said in June that shale gas fields in northern England are twice as large as estimated, potentially big enough to meet demand for 47 years. It said explorers have promised incentives, including a 1 percent share of production revenue to communities where shale gas is pumped.

Proponents say the benefits could mirror the United States where the exploitation of shale formations helped the country overtake Russia as the biggest producer of natural gas in 2009 and boosted crude oil output.

But some residents fear groundwater contamination.

“I have grave concerns about our water supplies,” said Anne Hall, a former county councilor in Balcombe in West Sussex, where driller Cuadrilla Resources plans an exploratory well and “No fracking” signs are widespread.

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