VAST swathes of North Yorkshire and areas of Teesside have been opened for oil and gas exploration, which could pave the way for fracking, after the Government awarded a raft of new licences to energy firms.

The licences, the majority of which in the region relate to shale gas, may lead to applications to use controversial gas production method hydraulic fracturing if the underground rock types necessitate it.

Campaigners claimed North Yorkshire had been designated a "fracking sacrifice zone".

Cuadrilla, the firm behind the only UK well that has been fracked, has been awarded 16 licences in the area, while INEOS has been awarded 15 licences across Ryedale, including the North York Moors National Park and Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Third Energy, which owns the licence at Kirby Misperton, the site of a plan for the country's first fracking operation since Cuadrilla's operation led to a tremor and a Government moratorium, has been awarded three new licences.

Energy firms will need planning permission and permits to construct rigs and drill.

Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said: "Alongside conventional drilling sites, we need to get shale gas moving... Now is the time to press ahead and get exploration underway so that we can determine how much shale gas there is and how much we can use."

The move, which is part of a controversial government drive to create more energy domestically through a shale gas industry, saw permits for 159 areas for onshore gas and oil exploration, including dozens in Yorkshire and two stretching from south of Hartlepool to north of Stokesley.

Following MPs voting to allow fracking 1,200m under national parks on Wednesday, numerous licences were also granted in and around the North York Moors National Park, covering beauty spots such as Rosedale Abbey.

Third Energy was also awarded an offshore licence in the North Sea, said its licences in the Cleveland Basin, with one straddling the River Tees, had “high potential”.

A spokesman for the firm said its plans for the Teesside area were in the “very early stages”, and the method for gas extraction remained unclear, but it would involve piping gas to the Wilton electricity generating plant.

Ineos said it was "committed to full consultation with all local communities” and would share six per cent of revenues with land owners and the community.

The awards immediately sparked concerns, with York Central MP Rachael Maskell saying as one of the licence areas stretched under the historic city centre and residential areas, she would battle to ensure residents decided whether or not there is fracking there.

Chris Redston, of Frack Free Ryedale, said: "This is a very black day for North Yorkshire, which has now been officially designated a Fracking Sacrifice Zone in the government's relentless but misguided dash for gas.

"If local people haven't been worried about fracking up to now because it's not happening on their doorstep, then it is time for them to wake up and smell the methane. Fracking is now on everyone's doorstep."

Russell Scott, of Frack Free North Yorkshire, added: "The scale of the planned operations is staggering, particularly in an area like Ryedale, whose prosperity depends on the tourist economy and agriculture.

"If these plans are allowed to go ahead, Yorkshire will soon become one huge gas field, with grave consequences for our local industries, environment, wildlife, health and peaceful way of life."

Greenpeace slammed the Government’s energy policy and said it was rushing towards a new industry of fossil fuels.

A spokesman for the environmental group said: “Just days after an historic agreement at the Paris climate summit to move towards a renewable energy future – the UK Government’s gung-ho approach to a new fossil fuel industry is bizarre and irresponsible.”