LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron has given his unequivocal backing to the divisive "fracking" process used to extract shale gas from rocks, risking angering his party's supporters from more rural areas.
Britain is thought to have major shale gas reserves which could help reverse a rising dependency on energy imports, but the energy industry is having to tread carefully to reassure a sceptical public and vocal environmental lobby.
Fracking for shale gas could help reduce energy bills, create jobs and provide extra funds for communities where the resource is found, Cameron wrote in an editorial in Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper on Monday.
"If we don't back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive," the leader of the governing Conservative Party wrote.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking retrieves gas and oil trapped in tight layered rock formations by injecting high-pressure water, sand and chemicals.
Critics say it can trigger small earthquakes, pollute the water supply and spoil pristine parts of the countryside.
Protesters have been active at one drilling site in Balcombe, West Sussex, in a constituency in the Conservative party's traditional southern heartland.
Cameron said he supported fracking in both the north and south of the country, dismissing recent suggestions by a lawmaker that the process could be confined to less populous and remote areas in the north.
Cameron argued fracking was safe and, if it was properly regulated, there was no evidence it would contaminate water supplies or cause environmental damage.
Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Andrew Heavens