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A DECISION on Britain’s first shale gas development has been delayed until the autumn as the government struggles to craft a system to police the highly controversial industry.

The process has been complicated further by concerns within the Department of Energy and Climate Change over the involvement of Lord Browne of Madingley, the former BP chief executive who was accused of overseeing a poor safety culture at the oil giant.

Shale gas drilling has the potential to open up vast new reserves, but it has stirred debate because it uses toxic chemicals and carries the threat of blowouts or other accidents. In America, homeowners have sued oil companies after their drinking water became polluted with methane.

In September, Browne was appointed chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, the private company that last year caused a series of small earthquakes when it drilled near Blackpool. Cuadrilla claims to have found up to 200 trillion cubic feet of gas — enough to supply Britain for almost 70 years.

The company has been barred from drilling since the tremors.

The government launched an inquiry into the drilling technique, which uses water and chemicals at high pressure to blast apart underground rock formations. The study found that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, can be done safely. A public consultation ended in May and Cuadrilla is waiting for government approval to start drilling again.

Last month, campaigners from the “Frack Off” group locked themselves to the gates of a drilling rig depot.

Browne ran BP when its Texas City refinery was rocked by an explosion in 2005 that killed 15 people and injured 170 others. An independent study led by James Baker, the former secretary of state, blamed the accident on a poor safety culture and cost cutting.

It is understood that the government is worried about the potential for controversy if the drilling plan — Cuadrilla envisages hundreds of wells in Lancashire — is waved through with Browne at the helm. The firm denied his involvement was an issue. Any suggestion otherwise was “just plain wrong”.

The Sunday Times, 8 July 2012