By Sarah Young
BALCOMBE (Reuters) - British opposition to shale gas extraction flared up in the tiny village of Balcombe on Sunday as hundreds marched on an oil exploration site in protest at the drilling process known as 'fracking'.
Banner-waving men, women and children traveled in by buses and bikes to join locals in a mile-long trek, surrounded by police, towards a drilling operation run by Cuadrilla Resources in the picturesque English county of West Sussex.
Britain's government needs to win over a skeptical public if it is to stimulate a U.S.-style production boom and offset dwindling North Sea oil and gas reserves. The massive expansion of U.S. shale gas extraction has driven down energy prices and cut dependence on imports there.
"I'd like the politicians to know that they have to be more careful and consult with communities more before they allow fracking," said 35-year-old Gabriel Schucan before the march.
Groups orchestrating the protest said it would be followed by two days of "direct action" on Monday and Tuesday. Acting on police advice, Cuadrilla on Friday said it was suspending drilling due to the protests.
"Direct action speeds up the national conversation a little bit. It forces us to talk about the things we don't want to talk about," said Ben Healey, a 39-year-old environmental consultant.
Activists are concerned the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process used to extract gas from rocks underground can trigger small earthquakes and pollute water supplies. Other protesters oppose any oil and gas exploration in the countryside.
Cuadrilla Resources, which is drilling a conventional oil well in Balcombe, is the only company to have fracked a shale gas well elsewhere in Britain, making its activities a target for protesters.
Local campaigners and a group opposed to fracking, Frack Off, have been protesting at the site since drilling started in July. At one of two "family friendly" activist camps, a volunteer said they had been feeding up to 500 people per day.
Prime Minister David Cameron has been unequivocal in his support for fracking as a way to create jobs and cut energy bills. Land in the north of the country is estimated to hold enough gas to meet Britain's needs for the next 40 years.
But lawmakers in Cameron's Conservative party fear the push for more fracking could cost them votes in rural constituencies. A recent poll showed public opinion is split, with 40 percent of Britons against fracking in their area and the same proportion in favor.
Cuadrilla Chairman John Browne, a former chief executive at British Petroleum, said fracking for shale oil and gas was important for Britain's energy security.
"This is about getting domestic resources. Domestic gas is more green than imported gas, and we need to explore as much domestic resource as we can," said Lord Browne. "It's right for our energy security, and, if done safely, we should pursue it."
With natural gas imports from outside the North Sea set to surpass domestic production by 2015 Britain has been looking for new gas sources to meet rising import needs. Imports have so far mostly come from Norway and, increasingly, Qatar, but Britain risks losing out to higher-paying Asian customers in the race to secure new supplies.
Campaign group Friends of the Earth argues British shale production would not be significant enough on its own to cut energy bills across the EU-wide market, and rising global demand would soak up any extra production.
(Writing by William James; Editing by Andrew Heavens)