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By Sarah Young
BALCOMBE, England, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Police arrested at least 12 anti-fracking protesters blocking access to an oil exploration site in rural England on Monday on the 26th day of a standoff that has come to symbolise the challenges facing the nascent industry in Britain.
A Reuters reporter said at least a dozen protesters were carried by the police into waiting vans after demonstrating at the Cuadrilla Resources-owned site in the village of Balcombe in West Sussex about 35 miles (55 km) south of London.
One of those arrested was lawmaker Caroline Lucas, former leader of the Green Party. Organisers of the demonstration said they believed many more people had been detained as police moved in to clear the area after scuffles broke out.
In what could be the biggest public challenge yet for Britain's shale gas prospectors, opponents of the drilling process known as 'fracking' had already forced privately owned Cuadrilla to suspend drilling at the site.
"Along with everyone else who took action today, I'm trying to stop a process which could cause enormous damage for decades to come," Lucas said in a statement. "The evidence is clear that fracking undermines efforts to tackle the climate crisis and poses potential risks to the local environment."
Desperate to stimulate a U.S.-style production boom and offset dwindling North Sea oil and gas reserves, Prime Minister David Cameron has come out in favour of fracking as a way to create jobs and lower energy prices.
But many Britons are yet to be convinced and the debate has turned angry in recent weeks, with death threats sent to the head of Cuadrilla and around 50 people arrested at the site since protesters set up camp there in July.
On Monday protesters repeatedly clashed with police who have been bussed in to the village from around Britain to protect the exploration area. Some chained themselves to the entrance of the site which is down a country lane bordered by dense woodland and behind tall metal fences.
"This protest is part of a huge wave that's building up," 32-year-old Mark Weaver from London told Reuters. "There's a lot of people who are going to be watching what's happening here."
Activists are concerned that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process used to extract gas from rocks underground, can trigger small earthquakes and pollute water supplies. They would rather the government invested in renewable energy such as wind power. (Writing by Kate Holton; editing by Belinda Goldsmith)