UK – The Church of England has defended its decision to assert ownership of ancient mineral rights throughout the UK, paving the way for commercial exploitation as speculation grows that it might embrace fracking to reduce fuel poverty.

The Land Registry has written to thousands of property owners telling them that the Church Commissioners – whose £5.5bn (€6.4bn) endowment fund finances the Church's ministry "particularly in areas of need and opportunity" – have applied to register their rights to minerals in the ground beneath their homes.

Of the total 16,000 notices sent out to date, nearly 9,000 relate to applications made by the Church Commissioners.

The rights, applying to land totalling 500,000 acres, date back in some cases for centuries.

But the Land Registration Act 2002 requires formal registration with the Land Registry to protect those rights.

The deadline for registration is 13 October.

The discovery of huge reserves of shale gas underneath vast swathes of the UK has resulted in a rush by energy companies to exploit their potential, using the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) procedure, which creates fractures in the shale formation to release the gas.

The revelation that the Church is now registering its mineral rights has sparked speculation in the UK press that it could be about to cash in on the fracking boom.

There has been widespread criticism of the fracking process, given its invasive nature, and possible resulting damage to the landscape.

Mining company Cuadrilla has currently suspended its oil exploration activities in Balcombe, Sussex, because of a large-scale protest.

However, Philip Fletcher, chair of the Church of England's group on mission and public affairs, said the Church has no official policy either for or against fracking.

But he added: "Fuel poverty is an increasingly urgent issue for many in society. Blanket opposition to further exploration for new sources of fuel fails to take into account those who suffer most when resources are scarce."

He added: "Clearly, all carbon-based fuels contribute to global warming and are less than ideal in terms of climate change. However, it should also be recognised that gas is less damaging than coal."

Karina Litvack, former head of governance and sustainable investment at F&C, said: "The Church is doing the right thing – if you own a property right, first and foremost you need to assert it.

"I would place more faith in the Church Commissioners than in certain other freeholders because they do have an ethical policy and have shown an ability to engage with the community and take a long-term view.

"And if they own the mineral rights to land, no-one else can get in there and operate without their say-so."

But she warned that the UK would have to learn from mistakes made by the US fracking industry, such as methane leakage into the atmosphere, and disruption of social structures and the jobs market.

"Fuel poverty is a real problem," she said, "but fracking is only one way of solving it."