Europe's embryonic shale gas industry is anxiously waiting for a small local council in the north of the U.K. to decide whether it will allow the first onshore hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking" -- for shale gas in Western Europe since 2011.
Lancashire County Council met Wednesday to vote on allowing U.K. exploration company Cuadrilla Resources, formerly chaired by ex-BP head John Browne, to frack at the Little Plumpton site, after planning officers earlier approved the site.
The run-up to the decision has been marked by protests by environmental groups. Cuadrilla has been blamed for causing two small earthquakes in the north England town of Blackpool in 2011 – which led to a moratorium on the controversial method of energy extraction.
The vote to allow fracking was tied 7-7, with the chair (who has the casting vote), voting against turning down Cuadrilla's application. A final decision is now expected Monday.
If given the go-ahead, the company has pledged as much as £100,000 to local community groups for every well it fracks.
While the European Parliament has voted for a moratorium on fracking, the U.K. has ignored it.
There are currently 95 applications for licenses to explore onshore oil-and-gas in the U.K., suggesting a potentially substantial industry which could both boost jobs and make the country less dependent on external energy sources. The U.K. has up to 26 trillion cubic feet of shale-gas deposits – or eight times its current annual gas consumption – according to U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates.
Much as in the U.S., the debate centered on the tension between commercial gain and potential future environmental pain.
Councillors in Lancashire heard from a series of objections to the plans – including one which quoted from the William Blake poem Jerusalem, asking councillors to preserve the "green and pleasant land".
Protests by hundreds of people outside the council offices during the hearings included Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Lancashire Nanas.
There may now be a debate over whether decisions on fracking should be taken at central government level rather than locally. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to go "all out for shale" and may want to speed up the approval process for future sites.