UK fracking update

UK anti-fracking protests are indefatigable

frack off protestersIn Britain, consistent efforts to stop Cuadrilla’s exploratory drilling operations are escalating. Company headquarters have been stormed, the only Green Party MP was arrested, a 6-day “Reclaim the Power” action camp was launched, thousands marched, 45 in total were arrested, chained bike blockades, chanting, scuffling with security forces…you get the idea. The degree of media coverage combined with sustained & diverse direct action strategies is such that an update on the UK fracking debate is invaluable. Against the backdrop of climate and energy crisis deliberations across the Western world, protests in the UK are putting public concerns about energy in the limelight. A previous post on fracking in the UK can be found here.

Balcombe (30 miles south of London) is the focal point around which separate UK anti-fracking groups are rallying and networking. See: FrackOff and Friends of the Earth, two of the largest organizations involved. Volunteers feed nearly 500 people daily at the Occupy-style activist settlement, an encampment that attracted double the amount of people the organizers hoped to gather last weekend. Over 2,000 people were in attendance for the demonstration. The combination of efforts listed below resulted in Cuadrilla’s removal of equipment from the site and temporary suspension of operations last Friday.

Strategies and key events:

  • Protesters have superglued themselves to fences surrounding the drilling site and to the glass front doors of Cuadrilla’s PR company, Bell Pottinger. Using “reinforced arm tubes”, protesters have stalled efforts by police officers to unglue them. Protesters also left a 16-foot wind turbine blade behind in the office, engraved with the phrase “More wind”.
  • Disabled protesters in wheelchairs formed blockades to the entrance of the drilling site.
  • Protesters stormed a company office in Lichfield; Cuadrilla claims that these efforts are examples of “illegal direct action”.
  • Balcombe action camp organizes skills-specific teams based on protesters’ responses on “matchmaking” forms, where individuals describe what they can meaningfully contribute and whether or not they are willing to be arrested. Activities listed include “climbing, standing their ground, getting through or over fences, looking after people, providing entertainment, or documenting the action.”
  • Use of marches, chanting, singing, and drumming as well as workshops to discuss energy alternatives.
  • The Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was involved and arrested on charges of assault and obstructing the highway. Her presence, as well as other celebrity figures, has brought even more journalistic attention to the demonstrations.

 Direction of the debate

cameron supports frackingA national poll found that the UK is split 40-40 on fracking: 40% approve and 40% oppose the practice. No mention was made of the other 20%. Disagreement over the “facts” characterizes the rift between each side: how many years that shale gas would supply Britain with energy, how soon consumers would be affected, the rate of supply, environmental and health effects, etc. Claims that the northern countryside’s shale plays hold enough gas to fuel Britain for 40 years are met by counter-claims that reserves and production rates are vastly overestimated. Based on American shale energy production figures, critics estimate that only 600 of 3,000 proposed wells would be commercially viable in Britain. But prime minister David Cameron is trying to convince a wary public that shale gas & oil is the only way forward for the country, that widespread public support would follow if the benefits were fully explained, and that there would be only small changes made to the landscape. He even announced that he would support fracking close his countryside home in Oxfordshire.

Regardless of what the PM says, critics from the Irish Times and the Guardian have contended that the government misstepped from the beginning, when no open debate was had over a “fracking policy”; Parliament simply decided that it would support the industry. If a national discussion preceded drilling permit approvals, perhaps there would be greater support. Now, Conservatives are worried about losing votes in rural areas where fracking would commence. Moreover, protesters believe that without an official debate and because legal methods have been exhausted or ignored by Parliament, civil disobedience is the only strategy left. Dialogues with affected, local constituents have been few; the government decided that 1% of generated revenue would be fed back into these communities, but the Local Government Association finds these financial kickbacks to be woefully inadequate when compared to compensation awarded in other countries.

Other facets of the fracking debate

balcombe protestAt issue besides the questionable economics, seismic risks, and worries over water contamination is the angst that fracking will simply undermine efforts to address the climate crisis. Green Party PM Lucas made this clear when she spoke out at the protest: is the fracking route an indication that politicians won’t take renewable energy seriously? Cuadrilla chairman Lord Brown contends that “domestic gas is more green than imported gas.” As gas is currently shipped from Norway and Qatar, imports are expected to rise even more as offshore gas supplies in the UK dwindle. New York Times writer Alan Cowell believes the debate is  deeply tied to centuries-long traditions & connections to rural land that communities believe would be altered with the arrival of fracking technology and drilling sites.

Biogas: an alternative to fracking?

It took Nomansland farmer Stuart Cole a bit longer than Cuadrilla to obtain permissions for his energy project. Ironically, the concerns raised by local planners about his biogas plant are eerily similar to the complications that fracking brings to nearby towns and communities in the States: size of the power plant, visual impact, potential traffic increases, and industrial impact on the countryside. Cole did eventually receive approval and will build a biogas power plant that utilizes the anaerobic digestion of chicken manure to produce methane gas energy and fertilizer. On a much larger scale, the Edinburgh Scotch whiskey distillery (suppliers of brands like Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker Black Label) installed a green tech project that recently won an award for its biogas plant. The successful completion of the project has helped the distillery reduce its carbon emissions by 9,000 tons/year – the equivalent of removing 3,000 cars from the road. Generating up to 24,000 mega-watt hours of energy, Edinburgh Scotch’s plant converts biogas to steam and electricity. One of Britain’s largest nature conservation groups opposed to fracking (RSPB) suggested that biogas projects such as these would make for a better energy alternative, as the UK has plenty of food waste and agricultural products.

If the protesters remain dogged in their efforts, perhaps “biogas” will become a more familiar term in UK energy crisis conversations. But “cheap energy” and “jobs” remain the big signifiers on fracking supporters’ lips. In the meantime, the lines are drawn and the fracking debate will likely intensify in the coming weeks.

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