MASSIVE gas reserves worth millions of pounds may be hidden beneath Hampshire, it has been revealed.

Thousands of jobs could be created if drilling companies believe it is worth trying to extricate the supplies, which have lied buried in tiny holes in rocks for millions of years.

But any moves to mine the natural fuel could face major opposition.

The process used to extract it has caused controversy in America after it polluted tap water with so many chemicals it became flammable and sparked earthquakes.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has mapped potential shale gas reserves around the country, and has suggested Hampshire could be a prime site.

And now a potential boom in British shale gas extraction has been sparked after drilling firm Cuadrilla discovered the reserves it has been working on in north west England are as rich as the best supplies found in the United States.

The company has claimed a huge underground reservoir could hold enough methane to supply the country for 66 years.

Firms are now expected to start looking for other potential places to drill for gas.

Mike Stephenson, head of energy at the BGS, said although most of the interest is currently in the north, where conditions are similar to those experienced by the established shale industry in America, companies could shift their attention to other areas.

He said: “It’s more accessible in the north, where the rock is a lot older and it’s a lot shallower, but there are certainly a lot of shales in the south of England.

“There’s not much extraction from younger rock, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, and the younger rock like that in Hampshire might become more viable in the future.

“The rock needs to be a bit brittle, and the younger rock is more plastic, so it’s harder to crack it.

“I can’t second guess the companies, they could move in to the south of England.

“There’s likely to be a new licensing round in the summer, and then we’re likely to know where firms are going for.”

Because shale gas is so hard to get out of the ground, drilling firms have to use a controversial method called fracking.

The technique, which involves high-pressure water and steam being blasted into shales deep below the surface to crack the rock and let the gas escape, has caused outrage in America.

There have been complaints gas has escaped into drinking water supplies, leaving residents horrified to discover the water coming out of their taps has been so polluted it has been flammable.

Claims have also been made that chemicals used in the fracking process have been found in drinking water.

Fracking is also blamed for causing earthquakes.

Last year, a firm was forced to stop drilling near Blackpool after its operation sparked tremors.

Work at the site has been stopped since, but it is expected a report from geologists and seismic experts will soon clear it to continue, arguing the quakes caused by fracking are no stronger to the hundreds that naturally occur in Britain every year.

As well as mapping potential reserves, the BGS has also begun studying the concentrations of methane in groundwater around the country, with the aim of monitoring levels of the gas before fracking work begins, so its impact can be accurately measured.

It is not the first time it has been suggested there could be a reserve of natural resources hiding beneath Hampshire.

As reported by the Daily Echo, Northern Petroleum has launched repeated efforts to drill for oil near Hedge End, believing homeowners could be living above a massive supply of up to 50 million barrels.

But two years ago residents and environmental campaigners fought the plans to install rigs, and secret talks aimed at striking a land deal collapsed.

Northern Petroleum’s subsidiary NP Solent was last month granted a licence to search for gas and oil off the coast of the Isle of Wight, although it has so far stressed there is no firm commitment to carry out any drilling.

Fracking controversies

• FRACKING has been permanently banned in France and Bulgaria after public outcries. France was the first country to outlaw the process, last May, before the Bulgarian parliament followed suit last month after thousands of people protested over claims of the drilling method’s hazardous effect on the environment and people’s health.

• TWO hundred furious residents of Balcombe, West Sussex, packed into a public meeting in January to hear the chief executive of drilling firm Cuadrilla explain their plans to drill a test well less than a mile from the normally quiet village. The company is the same one which has seen its operations near Blackpool suspended since last May, when its fracking was blamed for causing two earthquakes.

•PROTESTERS occupied Cuadrilla’s Lancashire rig for 12 hours during a demonstration about fracking in December last year, claiming the county’s geological conditions in Lancashire were unsuitable for the process. The operation would have brought around 1,700 jobs to Lancashire.

• AMERICAN President Barack Obama has spoken out in support of fracking companies and has promised to open more areas for drilling. The move outraged environmental groups, after a study by the US Environmental Protection Agency found chemicals in the groundwater around shale gas wells in Wyoming.