Protesters target Cuadrilla HQ - see report below. Photos: Mark Luscombe
When George Osborne recently unveiled the world’s most generous tax breaks for shale gas extraction, in a desperate effort to kick-start the shale industry here, he might have inadvertently sowed the seed for the largest environmental movement the UK has seen in decades.
He will have watched last week’s events in Balcombe with concern. Local people, anti-fracking groups and environmentalists joined together to protest against shale gas company Cuadrilla’s plan to drill a test well in a picturesque Sussex village.
The birth of a movement
The UK anti-fracking movement effectively launched on 6 August 2011, when the coalition Frack Off unveiled a banner from Blackpool Tower protesting the UK’s first test drillings for shale gas in the town. Several other groups have followed, often local in nature, facilitated with the support of Frack Off and other experienced mobilisers.
The movement draws together a wide range of people, from environmentalists to advocates of the green economy and the large core of local people concerned about water contamination, localised earthquakes, chemical use, pressure on local infrastructure and the impact of local industrial activity on rural villages. It has also been reported that people are struggling to sell their houses in areas near suggested drill sites.
The current protest could have considerable political implications for the Conservatives. Balcombe is in a deeply Conservative constituency, with some locals having voted Tory their whole lives, and these people are now threatening to switch their vote unless the party changes its stance on fracking. They are also calling for more renewable energy.
In an editorial published on Monday, the Telegraph newspaper stated that the protesters in Balcombe ‘would happily return the economy to pre-industrial times’. They should read their own environmental correspondent Louise Gray’s report on Balcombe, in which she writes: ‘Sarah Hirst, 37, a teacher, left with her young children as soon as the protest started. She said she was scared to take part in protests before but felt so strongly she brought along three young children under seven. She said local people would be showing their anger at the Tories at the next general election. "At the last election I voted Tory but I have gone Green because of this." Mrs Hirst said a wind farm comes down after 25 years, but a faulty well could leak decades afterwards without anyone knowing. "I would happily have a wind farm and happily support it - a lot of people involved would. It is not a blight on the countryside, it is renewable energy in the long term," she said.’
A controversial industry
The shale gas debate is only just starting in the UK. Judging by the current protests, the industry’s hopes that they could conduct exploratory drilling away from the public eye have been dashed. Instead, communities across the UK worried about fracking are looking at Balcombe in admiration and mobilising anti-fracking movements, ready to strike when Cuadrilla or other shale gas companies move into their communities.
Meanwhile, elsewhere the shale gas industry is facing scrutiny. In Poland, which holds the largest shale gas reserves in Europe, investors are fleeing despite the government welcoming shale gas. US filmmaker Josh Fox’s Gasland Part 2 has just been released – his first film, Gasland, kick-started the anti-fracking movement five years ago, and the follow-up will unveil more revelations about the dirty business of the shale gas industry.
The largest environmental mobilisation for decades is now underway in the UK, due in part to the urgency of climate change but mainly driven by the threat of fracking. It is being directly fuelled by George Osborne and his allies, in opening the door to a fantasy gas future that is far from a safe bet. While George Osborne promises tax breaks for shale gas consumers, energy prices are set to soar once again as we enter the autumn and winter. We should ask ourselves if shale really is necessary to keep our lights on, or whether this is another move to make powerful corporations more money whilst the real cost to the consumers and the environment rises.
Dom O’Dwyer reports
Protesters yesterday stormed the HQ of fracking firm Cuadrilla in Lichfield, near Birmingham, in solidarity with the Balcombe blockade in Sussex.
A man in a suit, calling himself ‘Mr Fracktastic’, was accompanied by another man in a high-vis carrying a fracking rig, which appeared to be made of cardboard. The unsightly duo were chased down the streets of a picturesque city, known by the locals as LichVegas, by an articulate and well-dressed mob armed with well-researched facts and catchy chants. Mr Fracktastic shouted incoherently through a megaphone: ‘It’s going to be fracking fantastic, we’ll produce billions of litres of chemically enriched delicious water for you all to drink.’
The group responded by chanting: ‘No Dash For Gas! Reclaim the Power!’ and handed out leaflets to bemused onlookers. They explained how fracking has become the frontline of the government’s Dash for Gas, its plan to build up to 40 new gas-fired power stations as our existing power stations come to the end of their life. They’ll be pumped full of fracked gas fresh from our devastated countryside, leaving a trail of broken communities behind.
The rag tag bunch finally arrived at Cuadrilla HQ only to find that the doors of the office were locked and de-logo’d, guarded by police and surrounded by a (modest) media frenzy. It was a small victory in a battle that is set to continue in the coming weeks, with the ongoing blockade at Balcombe and the Reclaim the Power camp.