British environmental activists protested on the road leading to a proposed shale gas exploration site in Greater Manchester on Monday, slowing the trucks travelling to the site.

Britain's shale gas industry, still at the stage of exploration rather than commercial production, is facing frequent protests by environmental groups and local communities who fear the extraction, or "fracking" of shale gas would pollute water, blight landscapes and add to global warming.

Protesters set up a tent camp along the road leading to the drilling site, owned by IGas Energy, just outside of Manchester and held a slow march ahead of police-escorted trucks travelling to the site, hindering their journey.

“Really, we're going into the unknown. It's a 30-year benefit, we need to be facing up to the need to move off fossil fuels onto non-fossil fuels technologies right now rather than in 30 years time,” said protester Martin Burk.

'Really, we're going into the unknown.' — Martin Burk, protester

Britain's shale gas resources are estimated at more than 400 times the country's annual gas consumption, and the government has thrown its weight behind exploration at a time when rising energy prices have become a hot political issue.

France's Total has agreed to explore for shale gas in Britain, making it the first major oil company to enter the country's market.

Total SA, Europe's third-largest oil producer, said Monday it had acquired a 40 per cent interest in two exploration licences in eastern Britain.

Prime Minister David Cameron backed the deal, saying it would create jobs and increase Britain's energy security.

'All out for shale'

"A key part of our long-term economic plan to secure Britain's future is to back businesses with better infrastructure. That's why we're going all out for shale," Cameron said in a statement.

The government stepped in to ensure that companies exploring for shale gas get necessary planning permission by offering host communities the chance to keep all of the business taxes generated by such projects, instead of the normal 50 per cent. Local councils historically reluctant to accept such projects may be swayed by such incentives, particularly at a time when government austerity programs meant to reduce the deficit after the financial crisis have put the squeeze on local authorities.

"This is a naked attempt by the government to bribe hard-pressed councils into accepting fracking in their area," said Greenpeace climate campaigner Lawrence Carter.

"[Business Minister Michael] Fallon is effectively telling councils to ignore the risks and threat of large-scale industrialization in exchange for cold, hard cash. But the proposal reveals just how worried the government is about planning applications being turned down."

Under the terms of the deal with IGas Energy and its partners Egdon Resources, Dart Energy and eCorp, Total pledged to cover $1.7 million in back costs and spend as much as $50 million to develop the licences.

In financial terms, that is much smaller than similar projects in the U.S., where shale fuel has helped create a surge in energy production. But the participation of a major company such as Total suggests fracking may become a reality in Britain.

Poland and Britain are the only countries in Europe actively exploring for shale gas. Other countries have been hesitant, fearing the environmental repercussions.                        

With files from Reuters