Exploratory shale gas drilling will begin today in the UK for the first time in seven years.

However, already this morning protesters have tried to prevent shale gas firm Cuadrilla from recommencing ‘fracking’ at a site in Lancashire, England.

Operations at the site near Blackpool have been at the centre of a legal row for several years between Cuadrilla and opponents to shale gas, who claimed that drilling at the site was not safe because the process of hydraulic fracturing – the blasting of rocks with jets of water to release gas inside – caused seismic disruption.

But that row came to an end on Friday when a judge ruled that there was no reason why exploratory drilling could not start again.

Shale gas advocates say that any reserves found in Britain would reduce the current need for Britain to import gas from the Middle East and the US.

Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan said on Friday that he was “delighted to be starting our hydraulic fracturing operations. We are now commencing the final operational phase to evaluate the commercial potential for a new source of indigenous natural gas in Lancashire. If commercially recoverable, this will displace costly imported gas, with lower emissions, significant economic benefit and better security of energy supply for the UK.”

This morning, Egan told BBC Radio 4 that “irrespective of how well renewables are performing in the electricity sector, we are going to need natural gas. And surely developing it in this country is better than bringing it in from the Middle East or across the Atlantic.

He added that a UK shale gas industry could create “thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of jobs”.

But Green Party MP Caroline Lucas told the same programme that shale gas was “a whole new fossil fuel industry at exactly the time when scientists are telling us that we need to leave around 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change”.

She said that UK gas demand is falling and added that it is “much easier to continue with gas imports and then turn the tap off when our own renewable energy efficiency is up to capacity, rather than launching this whole new fossil fuel industry here, which will divert investment away from where it is really needed.”

Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School, said that for shale gas production “to develop at the scale and pace that would make a material difference to the UK’s future gas security, the industry must prove that it can be socially acceptable, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable”.

“Those that protest against shale gas maintain that it has no ‘social licence to operate’ and the that the government is forcing it through at the expense of local democracy. The industry hopes that it can drill enough wells without upset to demonstrate that it can operate safely and that its impacts can be managed.”

Prof Bradshaw added: “For the moment, at least, natural gas is the most important element in the UK’s energy mix, but its future role in the low carbon energy transition is uncertain. In the coming decade, it is certainly not a case of gas or no gas, and the government and industry argue that there are both environmental and geopolitical benefits of developing new domestic gas resources. Longer term, if gas can be decarbonized, it can be part of the solution, if not then it will fast become part of the problem.

“Whether shale gas development can become socially acceptable and proved to be environmentally sustainable counts for nought if the cost of its production cannot be covered by the domestic gas price.

“The purpose of this exploration phase is to answer this last question, will gas flow at rates that will make it economically viable to produce. The industry will not produce at sufficient scale to influence the UK’s gas price, which is subject to the laws of supply and demand in an increasingly global market; but, if the industry is able to gather pace and scale, it is expected that costs will come down.

“Clearly, one well won’t start a revolution, but it will begin to answer some of the key questions about the potential for shale gas to contribute to the country’s future gas security.”

Will Scargill, Oil & Gas Analyst at consultancy GlobalData, said that although beginning fracking “is an important step for Cuadrilla, we’re still a long way from shale gas playing a significant role in the UK energy sector”.

‘‘The government has put a lot of support behind the UK onshore sector in recent years, introducing the onshore tax allowance, licensing acreage and fast-tracking planning applications. In the end however, it will be technical and economic factors that determine whether shale gas is commercial and at what scale.”