The British Gas owner has paid £40m for two subsidiaries, one from Cuadrilla and the other from Australian engineering group AJ Lucas, which owns a quarter of licence.

Under the agreement on Thursday, Centrica will cover exploration and appraisal costs of up to £60m and will pay Cuadrilla and AJ Lucas a further £60m if it decides to continue to the development phase.

It is understood the £60m is intended to cover the costs of a six-well exploration programme, as revealed in The Daily Telegraph.

The Bowland licence area stretches across 450 square miles of Lancashire between Blackpool and Preston and Cuadrilla estimates the area could contain 200 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas.

Experts say that even if only 10pc could be recovered it could provide an important new source of gas for the UK, which uses about 3 tcf a year.

Mark Hanafin, Managing Director of Centrica’s International Upstream business, said: “With North Sea gas reserves declining and the UK becoming more dependent on imported gas supplies, it is important that we look for opportunities to develop domestic gas resources, to provide affordable sources of gas to our customers, and to deliver broader economic benefits to the UK.

“The Government’s clear commitment to developing the UK’s shale gas industry is creating the right environment for companies to invest and to deliver those benefits.”

He said the deal, which will result in Centrica buying back in to an area of Britain it drilled more than two decades ago but then abandoned, was an “attractive opportunity” to explore the potential and commercial viability of natural gas from shale in the UK.

The development of fracking – the controversial process of blasting water, sand and chemicals down wells to extract shale gas trapped within the rocks – has made prospects once written off attractive again. Cuadrilla says the result of a well drilled by British Gas in 1988 was what attracted it to the area.

Cuadrilla has so far attempted to frack one shale gas well but operations were suspended in 2011 after it caused two small earth tremors, leading to an 18-month fracking ban. The companies will need to secure a series of permits before they can embark on the planned drilling.

Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, said: “Today’s announcement represents a significant step in our on-going exploration programme for natural gas within the Lancashire Bowland Basin. Centrica, Cuadrilla and A J Lucas recognise the exciting gas potential that lies within the shale rock in Lancashire.

“Natural gas from UK shale can create thousands of jobs, generate significant tax revenues, reduce our ever increasing reliance on imported coal and gas and make a positive contribution to the country’s balance of payments.

“Centrica will bring to the Cuadrilla operated joint venture deep experience of all aspects of natural gas exploration, extraction and transportation and share the commitment of Cuadrilla and A J Lucas to explore for and develop this resource in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

Ministers are working on tax breaks for the shale gas explorers in the hope Britain might be able to emulate the success seen in America

Natural gas from shale could reduce the amount of gas the UK has to import in 2030 from 76pc to 37pc, according to estimates and the Institute of Directors claims nationwide investment could reach £3.7bn a year, supporting 74,000 jobs.

However, Centrica itself has sounded a note of caution, with chief executive Sam Laidlaw saying in January it would be at least a decade before the UK saw any shale gas production and that, even then, it would not be “the game changer we’ve seen in North America”.

Centrica shares edged lower on Thursday in a falling market.