ENVIRONMENTAL campaigners have vowed to fight plans to drill dozens of wellheads in the Cheshire countryside to extract gas.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has issued licences to drill boreholes in the east of the county to test for coalbed methane.
Cheshire is well known for its underlying coal seams, particularly in old mining areas around Macclesfield and Poynton.
If successful, the tests could result in dozens of wellheads being drilled into the coal seams to extract gas trapped inside - with as little as 100 metres between them.
The Government believes methane harnessed from coalbeds could be an energy source of the future.
But campaigners claim the wellheads - which would be surrounded by security fencing - would have a major impact on the landscape.
Jill Hatcher, spokeswoman for the Cheshire branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), said: "We will fiercely oppose any wellhead applications we believe will harm Cheshire's environment.
"While we recognise gas does have a role in the country's future energy supply, the CPRE's standpoint is to oppose any development in countryside which will damage its character or value.
"Should Cheshire be identified as an area for wellheads we will push for the development in brownfield sites where it will be far less damaging."
Methane has long been recognised as a clean, non-polluting fuel for power stations or a valuable feedstock for the chemical industry.
To free the methane, groundwater around the coal seam is pumped out, reducing the pressure and allowing the gas to be pumped up the well.
No planning applications for test drillings have yet been lodged with Cheshire County Council.
The companies behind the tests insist that methane is vital to meet Britain's rising energy demands. Andrew Purcell, managing director of StrataGas, one of the firms hoping the exploit the resource, said: "Our approach is based on the fact that coalbed methane needs to be extracted on a large scale to be financially viable. The current low price for gas on the world markets supports this.''
The DTI says it has issued licences across a broad area of east Cheshire and it is for the companies to decide a specific site to investigate.