Cuadrilla Resources, a company drilling for oil in southern England, has suspended activities at its site in response to an escalation of protests against the controversial fracking process.
Its site in the village of Balcombe in rural West Sussex has become a focal point for protesters who oppose fracking, used to extract shale gas and oil from rock, which Cuadrilla has pioneered in Britain.
The public debate about shale gas and the fracking process has intensified in recent months.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday gave his unequivocal support to fracking, risking angering his party’s supporters from more rural areas.
Privately owned Cuadrilla yesterday said it would scale back its operations in West Sussex after taking advice from police who are concerned about an influx of up to 1,000 extra protesters this weekend.
“We plan to resume full operations as soon as it is safe to do so,” the company said in a statement.
Cuadrilla is drilling a conventional well to look for oil in Balcombe, but has not ruled out seeking permission for fracking at a later date depending on the results of its initial exploration.
Conoco Philips drilled a well on the same site in 1986 which found evidence of oil, but not in commercial amounts.
Cuadrilla is the only company to have fracked a shale gas well elsewhere in Britain, making its activities a target for anti-fracking protesters, who have been close to the site since drilling started last month.
The relocation to Balcombe of a climate camp under the banner “No Dash for Gas,” which had been due to take place in Nottinghamshire, was behind the expected increase in protesters, Sussex Police said.
Local protesters and a group called “Frack Off” have formed the opposition so far.
A Cuadrilla spokesman said the company had brought in extra fences ahead of this weekend.
Security firm G4S has provided security since the start of operations, he added.
Britain is thought to have major shale reserves, which could help reverse a rising dependency on energy imports, but the nascent industry has yet to prove that it can make shale oil and gas flow from the rocks.
UK utility Centrica recently bought a quarter stake in Cuadrilla’s northern England shale licences. French oil company Total has also said it would like to explore for shale gas in Britain.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, retrieves gas and oil trapped in tight layered rock formations by injecting high-pressure water, sand and chemicals.
Critics of fracking say it can trigger small earthquakes, pollute the water supply, while others oppose any oil and gas exploration in pristine parts of the countryside.
The government has introduced tax breaks and said local communities will benefit from shale as part of its efforts to try to follow the US, where surging shale gas production has transformed its energy market, lowered prices and drastically cut imports.
A year-long ban on shale drilling in Britain was lifted in December last year.