‘‘AN opportunity that Lancashire must not pass up’’ is how the quest to begin fracking for shale gas in the region was sold to businesses yesterday.

According to Government energy minister Michael Fallon, keynote speaker at the event in Blackpool, shale gas could lead to huge drops in energy bills ‘as seen in the US’. And East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce chairman Mike Damms said Lancashire has the chance to become a European leader in the industry.

The event took place as it was announced fracking could create 64,000 jobs in the UK.

But not everybody is so excited at the prospect of drilling in the region, with a group of protesters pitching up and spending the day outside the conference.

As the Lancashire Telegraph exclusively revealed last June, if fracking is given the go-ahead, massive reserves of underground shale gas are lying beneath East Lancashire along the M65 corridor.

The British Geological Survey’s study of shale gas resources in Lancashire doubled estimates of reserves and extended the potential drilling area from Blackpool and the Fylde right across the east of the county. But opponents have highlighted the potential for mini earthquakes, water contamination and inflammable gas coming through the taps.

Speaking to the Lancashire Telegraph yesterday, Mr Fallon said fracking was a proven method of extracting gas. He said: “There is nothing new about gas, but this is a new source of home grown gas. These are all proven methods. This has been used around the world and there is nothing new about it.”

Mr Fallon, speaking at the conference organised by the North West Energy Task Force, said Lancashire had been chosen as the first place to try fracking in the UK because of the rich reserves beneath it.

He said: “We know shale gas is here. The Bowland shale stretches along 12 counties. We will see shale exploration in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Sussex, not just in the north west.”

Mr Fallon added that as long as local businesses, schools and colleges grasped the opportunity early on, jobs would remain local.

He said: “That is the opportunity for local firms to improve the skills necessary. There will also be extra boosts for industries who provide support such as steel and haulage and all the equipment needed to support these industries.

“This is also an opportunity for colleges to put on courses for the skills that are going to be needed.”

Meanwhile, outside the venue protesters including father and daughter John and Justine Stopforth were trying to make their point. Mr Stopforth said: “If fracking starts it will pollute the air and cause an absolute racket.”

During a panel discussion chaired by former England rugby international Bill Beaumont, industry experts, including Mr Damms, explained how businesses can benefit from the industry. One of the key messages they tried to get across was that Aberdeen, a world leader in offshore energy production, was an example to follow.

John Blaymires, boss of energy firm iGas, said: “The north west could be the Aberdeen of the onshore shale industry. This could put the UK in the driving seat for the whole of Europe.”

And owner of engineering firm Addison plc, Mike Addison, said it was important to engage with locals who had concerns.

He said: “We need to win the hearts and minds of people and it is important that is done locally. The success of the industry needs to be shared locally and with the people of the county.”

On the issue of skills and labour, Mr Damms said: “A lot of the skills are transferable so they would not be lost if fracking does not happen, although I hope it does and believe it will. My advice to small and medium enterprises is to be involved with it.”

He added: “We have a big chance to be a UK and European leader in this field. If we make the wrong decision not to have fracking in Lancashire we could have missed a huge opportunity.”

Mr Damms said some East Lancashire firms had already registered an interest in supporting the fracking industry, including Precision Polymer Engineering in Blackburn, Kirk Environmental and BCW Engineering in Burnley, PDS Engineering in Nelson and WEC in Darwen.