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Fracking for shale gas hits a raw nerve in Europe

Dan Kitwood | Getty Images

The huge success of drilling for shale gas via "fracking" in the U.S. has led to claims that a new industrial era helped by cheaper fuel prices is dawning. But in Europe, with different planning laws, population density and limited infrastructure, the technology is causing growing controversy and anger.

On Monday, 29 people including a member of Britain's parliament, were detained in the tiny U.K. village of Balcombe as police broke up a demonstration against plans to drill test wells for shale gas, just 40 miles south of London.

In Germany, brewers are lobbying the government to block fracking, warning that contaminated ground water could hurt the country's cherished beer industry.

"Nobody knows if fracking is damaging the groundwater supply," Marc-Oliver Huhnholz, press officer at the German Brewers' Association told CNBC Tuesday. "You have to compare the U.S. with Germany and you see that they are in many places where nobody is living, and here people are living very close by."

Police and climate protesters clash as police move in on a section of an anti-fracking demonstration outside the test drill site operated by British energy firm Cuadrilla Resources in Balcombe, southern England, on August 19, 2013. Source: Carl Court | AFP | Getty Images.

(Read more: Cameron's fracking backing gets warm welcome)

Part of the opposition has been driven by Europe's belief that the real solution to the region's energy needs should come from renewable energy. The European Union aims to derive 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020 and governments have been spending billions of dollars on supporting wind and solar power.

In the U.K. protestors have adopted civil disobedience tactics to block drilling. Protesters in Balcombe chained themselves together on Monday and tried to block access to the site as 400 police officers were drafted in to clear the roads.

Other protestors targeted the headquarters of the drilling firm Cuadrilla and its public relations firm Bell Pottinger.

Jane Thomas, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth told CNBC Tuesday, that while she wouldn't condone the protests, people had legitimate concerns.

(Read more: US shale oil threatens to derail OPEC's future: IEA)

"I've been in Balcombe quite a lot and people are not talking about their house prices...they actually are concerned about environmental impacts and they are talking about legacy, they are talking about climate change, they are talking about what is left for their children," she told CNBC.

Caroline Lucas, a member of parliament and the former leader of the Green Party who was arrested on Monday said she took peaceful non-violent "direct action" only after exhausting every other means of protest available to her.

"I'm trying to stop a process which could cause enormous damage for decades to come," she said. "The evidence is clear that fracking undermines efforts to tackle the climate crisis and poses potential risks to the local environment."

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping a high-pressure water mixture into the earth to force gas stored in rock formations out. Earlier this year, the British Geological Survey estimated there was around 40 trillion cubic meters (1,300 trillion cubic feet) of shale gas in the ground in the north of England, enough to supply all of the U.K.'s gas needs for 40 years.

(Read more: Underground economy: How shale is 'fracking' the old order)

In the U.S., fracking has helped lead a revolution in gas and oil production. The U.S. is forecast to become a net exporter of gas by 2020, and according to Morgan Stanley, this could lead to the re-industrialization of the U.S. economy.

Corin Taylor, a senior economic adviser at the U.K.'s Institute of Directors told CNBC that there were a number of benefits from shale gas such as job creation, tax revenues, a reduction of gas imports and a boost to British manufacturing.

"We need to see more renewables...but last year we got less than 5 percent of our total energy from renewables, and over 85 percent from hydrocarbons and the rest from nuclear. So we're going to need gas for some time to come as we grow renewables," Taylor said.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has been a vocal advocate of the technology. Writing in an article in the The Daily Telegraph newspaper on August 12 that the U.K. could "not afford" to miss out on fracking because the "benefits were clear".

But anti-fracking campaigners aren't convinced.

"In America, they've had this industry going for twenty years, they've invested a lot, they've got the workforce, they've got the infrastructure, they've got a very different roads system, they've got pipelines," Jane Thomas told CNBC. "We haven't got any of that....if this is going to be the silver bullet that some people are talking about, the level of extraction, the number of wells that are required is absolutely huge and phenomenal."

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