THE Government has opened the bidding process for new licences to extract shale gas using the controversial fracking process.

About half the UK is open to exploration, but tightened rules cover areas of outstanding beauty.

Companies granted a licence to begin test drilling will also need planning permission and environmental permits.

The coalition government sees shale gas as a major potential energy source, but critics of fracking warn of environmental dangers.

Fracking involves blasting water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale rock formations to release the gas held inside.

In announcing the so-called 14th onshore licensing round, new business and energy minister Matthew Hancock said: "Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth.

"We must act carefully, minimising risks, to explore how much of this large resource can be recovered to give the UK a new home-grown source of energy.

"Some kind of recompense is very reasonable."

It is the first time in six years firms have had the opportunity to secure new licences.

"Of course there is local opposition in some places," Mr Hancock said."But broadly there is also public support for the argument that we need energy security."

However he was unable to immediately name a community which is welcoming fracking. Robert Gatliff, science editor at the British Geological Survey told the BBC it would still be some time before full scale drilling would start.

“The first stage is to review all the data you've got.,” he said.

“Then you'd want to drill one or two exploration holes and take samples of the shale and see exactly what the content is and see which have got the most in and which bits are likely to fracture best to get the most oil out."

An agreement to proceed with drilling would still be subject to planning permission and permits from the Environment Agency.

He said that, although surveys suggest there is between 820 and 2000 trillion cubic feet of gas embedded under the UK, "there's no way we'd get all that out".

He said: "If you look at what happens in the US, and that's where you've got to look because that's where they've drilled thousands of holes, they're not getting more than five per cent.

"In Britain we're so crowded and we've got these beautiful areas which further reduces the amount we can get out."

Paul Walton, head of environment and rural economy at the New Forest National Park Authority, said: “The New Forest is a world-class landscape with more than half of it recognised as being internationally-important for nature.

“We welcome the Government’s intention to safeguard National Parks to ensure these iconic landscapes continue to receive the highest status of protection. “As with all major forms of infrastructure, oil and gas development should only be permitted within our finest landscapes in exceptional circumstances, where the reasons for National Parks being created would not be compromised and where it can be demonstrated that they are in the public interest.”