An energy company has been granted exclusive rights by the Government to explore for underground shale gas on Teesside – potentially paving the way for controversial fracking.
Third Energy has been awarded the rights by the Oil and Gas Authority for a large block of land which includes the south of Hartlepool.
Friends of the Earth says it could open the door to fracking for shale gas and coal-bed methane and has called on Prime Minister David Cameron to listen to concerns.
The group fears the process could contaminate local water supplies and even release radioactive material into the atmosphere.
But the Department for Energy and Climate Change says the companies must to go through rigorous safety checks and have permits secured before exploration for gas can begin, which could take three years.
Simon Bowens, North East campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: “Increasing evidence on the health and environmental impacts of fracking is emerging.
Now is the time to press ahead and get exploration underway so that we can determine how much shale gas there is and how much we can useEnergy Minister Andrea Leadsom
“We need to take strong action on climate change so it is ludicrous that David Cameron is opening up vast swathes of England to exploit new fossil fuels.
“Fracking is banned or put on hold in places across the world including Scotland, Wales, France and New York State by governments acting to protect people from the impacts.
“Yet the UK Government has taken the first step to impose fracking and unconventional gas on the people of Teesside.
“David Cameron should not subject the community to the potential harm from this risky industry.”
Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said gas will play a vital role in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon future.
She said: “Alongside conventional drilling sites, we need to get shale gas moving.
“As the Task Force for Shale Gas report found earlier this week, with the right standards in place fracking can take place safely.
“Now is the time to press ahead and get exploration underway so that we can determine how much shale gas there is and how much we can use.”
Third Energy pointed to numerous organisations that have carried out research into fracking, including Public Health England, and said any risks can be managed through regulation.
Rasik Valand, chief executive officer of Third Energy, said: “We are pleased to have secured two high potential onshore blocks, especially in light of the significant competition from other operators.
“We are also pleased to have been awarded the offshore block, and especially pleased to have achieved the milestone of becoming an offshore operator of a quality block with existing discoveries.”