The UK government has been warned against “jumping on the shale gas bandwagon” by three leading environmental groups.

Friends of the Earth, the RSPB and the WWF have written to UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey to urge a measured and cautious approach to shale gas extraction until “the potential impacts are properly understood and provisions are put in place to ensure that any development is in line with UK Climate Change Act commitments”.

The three groups maintain that the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction are not yet fully understood and current regulations regarding drilling “are inadequate”.

The groups claim that “if the UK’s shale gas resources were fully exploited, it would mean thousands of drilling sites across the country. Each site is estimated to be at least a hectare in size – equivalent to eight Olympic-sized swimming pools – and as this is a new industry, there is insufficient scientific evidence on the risks shale gas production will pose to the natural environment and how to minimise them.”

Friends of the Earth executive director Andy Atkins said the government “must halt shale gas drilling to properly assess the risks”. He added that Ed Davey “must resist calls to hook the nation on polluting gas that has been the main drive of rising energy bills”.

Chief Executive of WWF-UK David Nussbaum said: “Recent headlines revealing that Arctic sea ice has reached its lowest ever level should serve as a wake up call. Instead of jumping on the shale gas bandwagon, which is clearly not consistent with a low emission future, the government must reaffirm its commitment to tackling climate change and prioritise renewables and energy efficiency.”

Currently the only exploratory shale gas drilling taking place in the UK is being carried out near Blackpool in Lancashire by Cuadrilla Resources, including a 10 500-feet deep well drilled last year.