The hills of Lancashire, England, sit atop a mother lode of shale gas that may be extracted with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. (Alan Clarke/Bloomberg Markets)

An icy winter rain is pelting about 30 protesters who’ve converged at the gate of a natural gas drilling site near Manchester, England. On the other side of a fence topped with razor wire, a 10-story-high rig is boring into shale to determine if it’s suitable for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The protesters unfurl a banner: “Fracking will poison our children.”

As police officers push the protesters back, a convoy of supply trucks inches out of the gate and past an encampment of tents and trailers sporting placards. “Fracking will not lower gas prices, Lord Browne,” one reads.

Days later, the man the protesters call “the fracking czar” is seated in a solarium-like room overlooking the rooftops of Mayfair in London. John Browne, a former chief executive of oil giant BP, is clad in a crisp, white dress shirt with enameled cuff links.

Browne, a member of the House of Lords and a director in the British government’s Cabinet Office, is lamenting how the protests may slow his efforts to bring the U.S. shale boom to Britain.

Browne says fracking would secure a new domestic energy source, create thousands of jobs, generate billions of pounds in tax revenue and be a cheaper alternative than constructing nuclear plants.

“Shale gas could be very, very important for this country; it could be transformative,” says Browne, 66, who’s now chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, a British exploration firm that plans to frack the English countryside. “It’s like the opening of Alaska or western Siberia or the Gulf of Mexico.”

Browne, trained as a petroleum engineer, played a part in each of those pivotal events in 38 years at BP. Now he’s at the forefront of a push by major energy companies and wildcatters to take fracking global. Hydraulic fracturing — in which drillers blast water, sand and chemicals into shale deep beneath the earth to release oil and natural gas — is revolutionizing the energy game in the world’s No. 1 economy: After steadily declining for about 25 years, U.S. oil production surged 47 percent from 2008 to 2013. The Energy Department forecasts that the United States, which imported 6 percent of the gas it used in 2012, will be a net exporter of the hydrocarbon by 2018.

Even as evidence mounts that fracking operations drain aquifers and spew methane into the air, energy firms are fanning out across mammoth shale deposits in China, Russia, India, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. Royal Dutch Shell has joined forces with China Petroleum & Chemical, or Sinopec, in China to exploit the world’s largest shale-gas-laden formations. And Chevron has agreed to invest as much as $16 billion in partnership with YPF, Argentina’s state oil producer, to drill in the Vaca Muerta formation.

A gas mother lode

U.S. wildcatters, who started the shale boom in the middle of the last decade, are ready to pounce now that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has opened his country to foreign petroleum investment. One choice target: the gas-rich Eagle Ford formation that snakes from Texas into the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

“It’s the best shale play in Texas, but when you hit Mexico, there’s no activity,” says Chris Wright of Liberty Resources II, which fracks oil in North Dakota.

Even relatively small Britain is sitting on a gas mother lode. The Bowland-Hodder formation, a belt of shale that stretches across Britain’s midsection, holds more than 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the British Geological Survey. That’s almost the same size as the Marcellus deposit under the Appalachian Mountains, the No. 1 U.S. shale gas find. The mineral is so impermeable that it yields only a fraction of its hydrocarbons to producers.

The Marcellus is on course to give up about 9 percent, according to Pennsylvania State University. If the Bowland performs similarly, Britain will have enough gas to meet its needs for more than 40 years, data show. Such a windfall would be welcome in a country that expects to import 70 percent of its natural gas by 2020 as its North Sea reserves dwindle, says Michael Fallon, Britain’s energy minister. “Shale gas is coming to the U.K. one way or another,” says Fallon, Prime Minister David Cameron’s point man on shale gas development. “It would be far nicer if it came from underneath Britain rather than be imported from the U.S.”

Later this year, the British government plans to issue a round of oil and gas exploration licenses for about 60 percent of England, Scotland and Wales.

The shale boom is striking as the world’s leading economies struggle to find a balance between promoting economic growth and addressing climate change. The United States, the European Union and China, among others, have vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades by relying more on wind, sunlight and other renewable resources.

The European Commission has proposed cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Yet soaring demand for energy worldwide will require an investment of about $37 trillion over the next 21 years on new infrastructure for electricity and fuel production, the International Energy Agency said. Forecasting that renewable sources would account for just 18 percent of energy use by 2035, compared with 13 percent in 2011, it suggested the world may be entering a “Golden Age of Gas.”

“We are definitely going to have to burn hydrocarbons for a considerable amount of time; we have no choice,” says Browne, who in a 1997 speech at Stanford University became the first chief executive of a major oil company to acknowledge that fossil fuels contributed to climate change.

Even the green-leaning E.U. may find shale irresistible, says Fadel Gheit, an oil industry analyst at Oppenheimer. Natural gas, which is composed primarily of methane, emits half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned in power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

It could offer the 28-nation bloc relief from steep energy prices. European manufacturers pay more than twice what they would in the United States for electricity, the European Commission says.

Then there’s the Russia angle. The E.U. imports about 30 percent of its natural gas from its neighbor to the east, with several pipelines traversing strife-torn Ukraine on Russia’s southwest flank. Natural gas futures in Germany, Britain and other European markets spiked as much as 10 percent as Russian troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Europe’s vulnerability contrasts with the energy security the United States has derived from its shale bonanza. Following approval from the Obama administration, American producers will begin exporting natural gas in 2015.

Browne says the upheaval in Ukraine should spur European political leaders to clear the way for shale gas. “I hope this reminds people that having indigenous sources is a good thing,” he says.

“John Browne is on the right track,” Gheit says. “Fracking has transformed our thinking in the U.S. about our energy future. And Europe will have to finally wake up and realize that it needs to make some hard choices about developing its own domestic resources.”

Renewable-energy advocates say shale gas may deepen dependence on hydrocarbons and worsen global warming. The impact of methane, in its unburned form, on climate change is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, the EPA says.

Fallon says Britain remains committed to renewable energy, citing the $110 million in investments it’s making to spur the development of offshore wind farms and other projects.

Even if natural gas supplants coal in Britain or the E.U., the dirtier fossil fuel will be burned elsewhere, says Matthew Spencer, director of Green Alliance.

U.S. coal exports to Brazil, Germany and other markets have doubled since fracking took off in 2005, as American utilities have opted for cheap natural gas. Spencer says the influx of shale gas may have the perverse effect of forcing coal producers to lower prices to compete.

That, in turn, will make coal more attractive to burn, increasing carbon dioxide emissions, the No. 1 cause of atmospheric warming, the EPA says.

“Even though gas is a cleaner fuel, the growth of shale runs a locomotive through our attempts to limit climate change,” Spencer says. “If shale gas development isn’t accompanied by a constraint of coal, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Browne’s shale play vaults him into the center of yet another historic shift in the global energy industry. Only this time he’s not running a company with 97,000 employees that produced almost 4 million barrels of oil equivalent a day in more than 100 countries.

Today, Browne is a partner at Riverstone, a private-equity firm with $27 billion invested in energy firms from biofuel makers to pipeline operators.

In 2010, a Riverstone fund acquired a 41 percent stake in Cuadrilla for $58 million, and Browne joined its board. It is named after the team of helpers who aid the matador in a bullfight.

Cuadrilla’s primary asset: the government-issued shale gas exploration license for a huge chunk of the Bowland deposit in Lancashire, in northwestern England. The company said it planned to apply to the county council for permits to frack eight exploratory wells there, the biggest such operation to date in Britain.

The geology looks so promising that in June, Centrica, a publicly traded energy company, bought a 25 percent interest in Cuadrilla’s Bowland license for 40 million pounds and agreed to pay up to 120 million pounds in exploration costs. Cuadrilla paid 1,000 pounds for the license.

Browne has become the face of fracking in Britain — so much so that the protesters at the drilling site near Manchester singled him out even though another company, IGas Energy, is the operator there.

Browne has been steeped in the oil trade since he spent part of his childhood amid Iran’s oil fields. His father, John, worked for BP, and his mother, Paula, a Hungarian of Jewish descent who was imprisoned in Auschwitz, was a hatmaker. Browne says one of his most vivid boyhood memories is of a well fire that burned for more than a month. After earning a degree in physics from the University of Cambridge in 1969, Browne joined British Petroleum as a field engineer and was dispatched to the oil rush dawning on Alaska’s North Slope. Over 25 years, Browne managed some of BP’s most valued exploration and production projects, including the now-legendary Forties field in the North Sea and deep-water exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

Browne kicked off the era of the oil supermajor after he became chief executive in 1995. In 1998, he executed the $62 billion takeover of Amoco, the biggest oil deal of its kind up to then. The next year, Exxon acquired Mobil for $88 billion. Big Oil was in full swing.

Browne broke from industry orthodoxy in 2000 by pledging to address global warming with investments in renewable-energy projects. He shortened the company’s official name to BP, adopted the slogan “beyond petroleum” and replaced the company’s shield logo with a sunburst in green, yellow and white.

Finding oil remained paramount, and in the early 2000s, Browne — abetted by his friend Tony Blair, then prime minister — negotiated one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin to open Siberia to Western petroleum companies.

That led to the formation in 2003 of TNK-BP, a joint venture that has since unwound and left the British company with a 20 percent stake in OAO Rosneft, Russia’s No. 1 oil concern.

By 2006, Browne had become one of the most influential oilmen of his era and a member of the British establishment. He was ennobled by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, when Blair was in office, as Lord Browne of Madingley, after a village near Cambridge where he lived. He served as president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and was a regular at the annual World Economic Forum.

Then a spate of disasters battered his fortunes — and those of BP, which began to lose its green luster. In 2005, an explosion killed 15 BP workers at a refinery near Houston that had inadequate safety practices. The next year, a BP pipeline in Alaska dumped more than 212,000 gallons of crude onto the tundra. Those events foreshadowed others after Browne left BP, including the worst oil spill in history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

In January 2007, Browne, a gay man who’d kept his sexual orientation a secret, faced a personal crisis. A former boyfriend gave an account of his relationship with the BP chief executive to the Mail on Sunday newspaper. Seeking an injunction to block its publication, Browne misled the court, saying that they’d met while jogging in a park rather than through an escort agency. He resigned as chief executive on May 1, 2007.

3,000 new wells a year

Now, Browne will seek to overcome the opposition of many Britons.

Because gas output from shale typically falls 70 percent after the first 12 months of operation, Cuadrilla and other operators would have to drill 2,000 to 3,000 new wells a year to match the annual volume of imported natural gas, says David King, the Foreign Office’s representative for climate change. “If you want to keep up production, you have to keep up fracking,” King told the House of Lords.

British property owners don’t hold title to the oil and gas under their land — the Crown does. So drillers such as Cuadrilla can’t win grass-roots support by paying out royalties in exchange for drilling rights — a crucial instrument U.S. operators have used to lock up sites.

At the Manchester area site operated by IGas, demonstrators have blocked an access road to slow delivery vehicles.

“It’s going to be amazingly political,” says Garry White, a spokesman for Charles Stanley, a London investment firm that held 515,681 shares in IGas as of March 10. “As projects get delayed, operators will have to raise capital, so as a shareholder you have to ask whether you’ll get diluted out.”

As of that date, IGas shares had returned 26 percent in 12 months.

Browne says he would rather face public opprobrium, legal challenges and environmental regulations in Britain than the political uncertainty elsewhere.

“This is the next place to go,” Browne says. “It’s easier than going to China, where there was a land-grab free-for-all, or Argentina, or India or South Africa. There are rules in Europe, and they are slavishly applied. We are quite sure we can operate within those rules.”

Browne’s shale bet will be decided in a bucket-shaped piece of land called the Fylde that juts into the Irish Sea north of Liverpool. Framed by the gritty seaside city of Blackpool and the moors of the Bowland Fells, this coastal plain is quilted with rich pastureland, rural villages and some industry.

The Fylde sits on a part of the Bowland shale that’s 6,000 feet thick. Cuadrilla has been testing the rock here since 2007.

“We have no doubt there’s a lot of gas here,” says Andrew Quarles van Ufford, Cuadrilla’s technical director.

In 2010, Cuadrilla’s operations in the Fylde got off to a shaky start when its drilling triggered two tremors registering 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter scale. The events alarmed residents, and the government declared a moratorium to evaluate seismic risk, which has been lifted.

According to a strategic environmental assessment released by the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change, if the company moves to full-scale production, tanker trucks hauling water and equipment will make dozens of trips daily to the well sites, which will teem with rigs and chemical storage tanks. Up to 18,750 cubic meters of water pumped into each well to frack the shale will come back to the surface as mud and wastewater, enough to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools for each well.

The assessment concludes that fracking may harm air quality, contaminate groundwater and despoil the landscape. It says regulators and local officials can prevent these adverse effects by making sure the wells are properly constructed and that wastewater is safely removed.

That’s cold comfort for Andrew Pemberton, a farmer near a proposed fracking site. On a wet afternoon, Pemberton is churning up grass and beets for his 130 milk cows in a whirring machine. He’s anxious that if a well ruptured or wastewater spilled upstream, it may contaminate his pastures.

What’s more, the Environment Agency found in 2011 that the flow-back water from Cuadrilla’s fracked well contained high levels of radium. “I’m not a bloody tree-hugger, but if I have to raise cows on radioactive grass, who’s going to buy my milk?” he says. “I’m out of business.”

Browne says fracking and farming can coexist because the shale lies thousands of meters below the water table. By making sure the wells remain intact, there will be little danger that wastewater will leak near the surface, he says. “We’ll have to be very thoughtful here about how much land we use on top of the shale; this is not Texas,” he says. “Public pressure is an amazing innovator of technology.”

But Browne says fracking is inevitable. “When you look at the balance of risk and reward,” he says, “it’s evident this is something that’s going to be done.”

The full version of this Bloomberg Markets article appears in the magazine’s May issue.