LONDON -- British Prime Minister David Cameron warned Thursday that Europe was "missing out big time" on fracking and Britain would be making a "big mistake" if it shunned shale gas extraction.
Cameron said hydraulic fracturing -- a controversial extraction method -- could bring cheaper gas prices, as he compared the number of wells being drilled in the European Union to the United States.
A test drill in the countryside of Sussex, southeast England, has attracted a protest camp of hundreds, becoming the focus of a national campaign against the technique.
Cameron said Europe's take-up of the technique compared unfavorably with the United States, where fracking has created an energy boom.
"In the whole of the European Union last year, 100 shale gas wells were dug. At the same time in the U.S. there were 10,000," he told an audience in Darwen, northwest England.
"The EU has about three-quarters as much shale gas as the U.S. so we are missing out big time at the moment and I want to make sure that Britain does not miss out."
Last month, French President Francois Hollande ruled out shale gas exploration during his term in office.
Fracking has also been the subject of fierce debate in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives dropped plans in June for a draft law on the technique amid concerns by some coalition allies.
Britain reckons fracking could increase its energy security, create thousands of jobs and boost tax revenues..It also believes the U.S. shale gas boom shows it could reduce energy imports -- which have reached record highs in Britain -- and bring down household fuel bills.
"We would be making a big mistake as a nation if we did not think hard about how to encourage fracking and cheaper prices right here in the UK," Cameron said.
In the United States, "their energy costs in business and their gas prices are half the level of ours."
Environmentalists have warned that chemical-laced waste could contaminate fresh water resources, while fracking could cause minor earthquakes. Cameron insisted that "very clear" environmental procedures would have to be met before companies can obtain clearance to start fracking.
"Nothing is going to happen in this country unless it is environmentally safe," he said. "There is no question of having earthquakes and fire coming out of taps and all the rest of it."
The government plans to give local communities at fracking sites £100,000 (US$150,000) for each well and one percent of revenues if it is commercially viable.
"If people can see a direct benefit from fracking and from shale gas, they will be more willing to really look at the arguments about what this will mean for 'my community' if it goes ahead," Cameron said.
"I think in that way we can see wells dug and we can see the benefits of shale gas here in the UK."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013