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Fears of quakes and flammable tap water hit Britain as fracking looms

By Dan Rivers and Ben Brumfield, CNN
August 7, 2013 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Residents worry about potential earthquakes and tap water tainted with natural gas
  • Energy company has not applied for permission to frack, but protesters try to block its work
  • U.S. protesters have flown to the UK to join local demonstrators
  • UK energy minister: 'If there is any risk it will be stopped immediately'

Balcombe, United Kingdom (CNN) -- The fear of fracking has come to Britain, replete with worries about potential earthquakes and tap water tainted with natural gas that bursts into flames at the strike of a match..

Since a ban on the method of extracting natural gas was lifted in May, a company has begun exploratory drilling in the southern town of Balcombe to see what reserves may lie locked up in rock strata far beneath its rolling hills and green meadows.

Read more: 'Fracking' protesters say drilling jobs not worth environmental risks

The energy company Cuadrilla Resources has not applied for permission to frack, but that has not stopped hundreds of furious protesters from trying to block its work.

They fear that if gas reserves are found, fracking will come in short order.

Help from USA

Activists Jo and Karen strummed out a folksy tune on their guitars, singing: "Frack attack. They'll frack you 'til you die."

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The two have come over from across the Atlantic to join local protesters.

Read more: Make sure fracking is done right

"We are fighting fracking in the United States," Karen said. She has brought her ecological concerns with her, bemoaning that the United Kingdom may be going down the same path.

"It ruins the ground water regardless of what they say," Karen said.

"We've got people who can light their water in fire with the tap," Jo said. "They fracked Pennsylvania to death."

Proponents: It's safe

And as in the United States, proponents of fracking argue that the boost in energy supply is enormous and the methods are safe.

Read more: Opinion: Fracking is a threat to health and well-being

Cuadrilla believes there is about 200 trillion cubic feet of gas under the ground just within one of its local license areas. To put that figure into context, the United Kingdom uses about 3 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, chief executive officer Francis Egan said.

"We are able absolutely to protect the environment and protect the way in which fracking is done," said Britain's energy minister Michael Fallon. "If there is any risk it will be stopped immediately."

Read more: UK ministers consider offering communities fracking sweeteners

But the reassurances are not enough for many. A coalition of opponents to the drilling is growing. People who are otherwise political adversaries are uniting over the issue.

Conservatives at risk

Concerned local conservatives have joined the ranks of traditional anti-fracking protesters from the radical left.

Much of the gas exploration is taking place in rural regions that usually support the conservative party, which is in favor of drilling.

Many of their constituents don't like the prospects of what fracking might do to their water supply in spite of potential the gains.

"We can't have an industry rolling into communities like this one and destroying it just for the sake of money," said Balcombe resident Katie Dunn.

It's politically risky for conservative politicians. Fracking could blow a hole in their support at the next election.

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