THE bill for policing protests against fracking could cost taxpayers millions, it is claimed as firms line up to search the region for shale gas reserves.

Permits have been granted for exploratory test drilling at dozens of sites across North Yorkshire and the North-East.

But questions have been raised over how the region's police forces will bear the cost of policing the shale gas wells amid fears they could become the focal point for fracking opposition from groups across the UK if extraction is given the go-ahead.

Former police officer and author Mike Pannett said protests at the sites could drain the police budget and draw officers away from their usual duties.

Mr Pannett, who is standing as an independent in the forthcoming North Yorkshire police and crime commissioner election, said fracking protests could have “serious implications” and place a huge demand on the county’s relatively small police force.

In January a six-day operation at the IGas exploration site in Upton cost Cheshire Police more than £200,000 after the company obtained a court order to clear a protesters’ camp.

Weeks later the company abandoned its plans for a test site. Cheshire’s PCC John Dwyer asked IGas to reimburse the money, but the company refused, saying trespassers were on the land illegally.

Mr Pannett said there were other examples where police forces had been left with six-figure bills for policing longer-term anti-fracking protests.

He said the cost of policing the Balcombe site in Sussex was nearly £4 million.

Mr Pannett said: “The Government has made it perfectly clear that over the coming years fracking is a £33bn national priority to them, but to me it's incredibly unfair that the residents of North Yorkshire should be disadvantaged by footing the policing bill for a national priority.

“The cost for policing could feasibly run into millions here in North Yorkshire as protests and drilling gather momentum together.”

Mr Pannett said there was a lot of local concern and peaceful community opposition in Ryedale and elsewhere, but policing fracking protests was still a highly complex and sensitive operation.

He said: “If exploration or drilling in earnest is approved and particularly in the sensitive North Yorkshire Moors National Park region it would be foolish to underestimate the consequent scale of public reaction and inevitably also the potential scaling up and influx into the county of additional protest groups.”

Simon Bowens, Friends of the Earth Yorkshire and Humberside Campaigner, said: "It's true that wherever fracking is proposed, it is opposed and North Yorkshire is no different. Thousands of people have already objected to Third Energy's plans to frack at Kirby Misperton, including the district council.

“It’s little wonder there is so much community opposition when fracking risks harming the environment, people's health, and important North Yorkshire industries like tourism."

North Yorkshire Police did not comment on the potential cost of policing anti-fracking protests, but said they were obliged to enable lawful protest.

Superintendent Dave Hannan, head of specialist operations at North Yorkshire Police, said: "The police have a duty to facilitate lawful protest. This involves liaising with all sides of the issue and working with local authority partners to minimise disruption to residents and businesses.”

Energy firms Caudrilla, IGas, Ineos and Third Energy have all expressed an interest in extracting shale gas in North Yorkshire.

Ineos has been awarded 15 licences across Ryedale, including the North York Moors National Park.

Last week, the Environment Agency granted Third Energy permits for exploratory fracking at Kirby Misperton, near Flamingo Land Resort.

Planning permission has not yet been granted.

A spokesperson for Third Energy said policing anti-fracking protests was an issue of police policy and budgets and not something they wished to comment on.