Anti-fracking campaigners are staging a peaceful protest outside Chester Town Hall as plans for a major research centre based just outside the city go on show. 

The British Geological Survey (BGS) are behind the proposed Cheshire Energy Research Field Site, a world-class science hub that would see underground tests carried out via 80 observation boreholes on Ince Marshes. 

The BGS organised a community engagement event at the town hall today where members of the public can speak to their scientists and find out more about the centre, which is subject to gaining planning permission and regulatory approval.

Members of the Frack Free Dee Coalition are against the plans and claim the centre is a 'vehicle' which will help energy companies find out more about the controversial process of fracking. 

Phil Coombes, a member of Frack Free Upton which is part of the Frack Free Dee Coalition, said at today's demo: "We're trying to raise public awareness of precisely what the BGS are trying to do. It's an underhand way of researching into the (fracking) industry, using fracking as a vehicle to secure information which the energy companies want." 

Campaigners fear that fracking – the process of drilling down into shale rock and injecting a high-pressure water mixture to release gas and oil – is dangerous for the environment and should be banned. But energy companies think it would help give the UK a major source of fuel for the future and are determined to find out more about capturing shale gas, which has only recently been made possible due to developments in technology. 

The energy company IGas is in the process of applying for permission to frack for shale gas on Ince Marshes, leading to protests from anti-fracking groups in the area. 

Mr Coombes added: "This Conservative government is hellbent on exploring for gas under our feet. They see it as a saviour to energy prices, when in fact it's been proven that the only people who will benefit from the gas that is beneath our feet are the commercial companies that will be drilling for it."

But Professor Mike Stephenson, chief scientist for the BGS, told the Standard the Ince Marshes research centre would be home to ‘some groundbreaking science’.

He added: "I appreciate local residents think 'what does that mean for me?' It's a bit like thinking about Jodrell Bank. Years ago, the people of Holmes Chapel thought 'I don't really want that'. But it's now a place that people are proud of. It's a place where Manchester University invented radio astronomy. It became and is a symbol of brilliant British science.  This is the same thing, only looking down in the ground. We could develop a real centre of science that people would be really proud of in the area."

The publicly-funded BGS say the site is needed to carry out research into a wide variety of new low-carbon energy technologies that will help provide us with energy in the future. Their work would help our understanding of how the earth beneath our feet could provide energy soluctions. 

BGS says there will be no shale gas extraction but their Ince Marshes site would look at how shale gas behaves in the ground.

Of the protesters' claims the BGS centre would be a 'vehicle' for energy firms looking to carry out fracking, Prof Stephenson said: "Ince Marshes is a prospective sale gas site. We all know that. But we've got nothing to do with the process of shale gas permitting. We're a science organisation which isn't a regulator, we're not part of the system that permits it or doesn't permit it. 

"But if fracking was to go ahead, our monitoring and observatories would be applying a level of scrutiny that has never been achieved anywhere else in the world. We'd have more boreholes with more senors than ever before. 

"If it does go ahead, then we will be looking at it extremely carefully."

The three local Labour MPs for the area – Chris Matheson (City of Chester), Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port & Neston) and Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) – have all previously voiced their opposition to fracking in North Cheshire, which was a major issue during this year's General Election. The Conservatives are committed to allowing the of fracking for shale gas in Britain, if there is 'public support' for such schemes.