FRACKING fears have been raised in South Lakeland following the release of a report which suggests the area could be exploited for shale gas.

The controversial drilling process could be carried out in the district and neighbouring north Lancashire under Government plans revealed in the major energy report.

But within hours of its publication, fierce local oppostion began to mount against the prospect of fracking across a swathe of South Lakeland from Levens to Kirkby Lonsdale.

Concerns include damage to the area’s scenic landscape and ecology, fears over potential earthquakes and the damaging effect on house prices.

The document published by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) says licences for shale gas exploration around the country will be awarded next summer.

As many as 2,880 wells could eventually be drilled nationally, creating up to 32,000 jobs.

Although the report says South Lakeland and north Lancashire are both ‘under consideration’ for shale gas exploitation, it is unclear how many wells could be drilled in the area.

Key shale gas supporter David Morris, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, claimed the industry could bring 1,700 jobs to his constituency alone and would boost the area’s economy by millions of pounds.

“There is more shale gas underneath us in this area than there is anywhere in Britain,” said Mr Morris. “For us not to explore tapping into this defies belief.”

However, Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron said: “I am vehemently opposed to fracking anywhere, but certainly in South Lakeland where we have some of the most important landscape in the country.

“To frack for shale gas beneath the district is unthinkable and unacceptable. I’m also concerned about the potential geological impact. We have naturally occuring earthquakes already and no-one knows what the additonal threats will be from fracking.”

Friends of the Lake District were also worried about the impacts on the landscape and natural environment.

Planning officer Kate Willshaw said: “We would be concerned about the associated landscape, transport, water use and pollution issues which fracking operations bring with them.

“The Arnside and Silverdale area which has been identified in this document as having gas potential is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and much of it is also protected by Site of Special Scientific Interest designation. We consider that this would be a highly inappropriate place to undertake fracking.”

Retired UK diplomat Sir Christopher Audland, of Ackenthwaite, who was the European Economic Community’s Director-General for Energy in the 1970s, said: “I don’t think we have been told enough about the potential harm fracking for shale gas will do to the ecology and the landscape.”

Local climate change campaigners said the process should only be used as an ‘extreme measure’.

South Lakeland Action on Climate Change (SLACC) trustee Chris Rowley said: “It is not necessary now, it should be used when there is nothing left.”

Fellow SLACC member Sue Walley said South Lakes protestors would be travelling to Barton Moss near Manchester today (Thursday) to oppose exploration.

She said: “It risks arrests but if we do not do anything now what will we say to future generations? People need to stop it before it starts.”

The Kendal-based renowned climate change expert Mike Berners-Lee said the area needed fracking ‘like a hole in the head’.

“If there was a strong global deal to limit the total amount of fossil fuels coming out of the ground we could argue the case for it being better than coal. But we are miles away from that reality.

“Locally, it might create jobs but these are nothing compared to those from other energy options. And any compensation paid would be offset by the negative impact on house prices.”

Academic and natural history expert Dr Kent Brookes, of Kendal, said most reactions to fracking were ‘emotional rather than rational’.

“I am not particularly worried by the prospect of fracking in the Milnthorpe-Kirby Lonsdale area, after all, we have to do something to keep the lights on.

“Drilling for shale gas does have some risks, but the much feared earthquakes are about the same as if a bus passes close to your house. The ‘chemicals’ used in the water are quite benign, much like washing-up liquid, while the possibility of drinking water contamination is very slight and can be prevented by proper design.

“The adverse effects of fracking have been greatly exaggerated by ill-informed fanatics and the disturbance caused by drilling and fracking is temporary, unlike the effects of massive building on the natural world.”