Clean Energy or Dirty Water? – Fracking comes to Sussex
“Fracking is a classic disruptive technology which threatens to release much more oil and gas than was ever thought possible, to extract from the rocks of the earth” – Dr Roger Smith
“Fracking is stoppable, another world is possible! Fracking is stoppable, another world is possible!” chanted the crowd as they walked slowly down the road, waving placards with slogans such as “Forget Fossil Fuels” painted on them. They were edged forwards by a human wedge of hi-vis police uniforms, forming a protective barrier around the construction lorry. Legal observers kept an eye on the crowd, the media walked backwards, their cameras pointed at the protestors. It was late August, the environmental story of the summer was flaring up.
Fracking, the controversial, unconventional technique of extracting natural gas from shale deposits, had arrived in the small village of Balcombe in the Sussex Weald. People weren’t happy. The technique is also used for oil extraction, and the company drilling at Balcombe, Cuadrilla, are claiming that they are only surveying potential oil and test drilling sites. Many people (inevitably) saw this as a front for future fracking. Peaceful protest and direct action descended upon this middle-class Tory stronghold, bringing it to national attention.
So what’s the fuss all about? Why are communities around the world mobilising against this new technique of fossil-fuel extraction? Although fracking has been used for decades, the practice of horizontal drilling deep underground is what’s new. As well as opening up more fossil fuels for extraction, it has many environmental concerns attached to it.
Scientific studies have linked fracking to health risks due to air emissions, sickness, death and deformities in livestock, significant contributions to climate change from methane leaks, earthquakes, methane contamination of drinking water, and dangerous levels of radio-activity in waste water. Another major concern is the volume of water fracking requires. With fresh water being over-exploited globally, and each “frack” requiring millions of litres of the precious liquid, people are worried. They are asking – should we be wasting this precious resource on extracting fossil fuel? What happens to this massive amount of toxic waste water?
This is what scares a lot of folks around the world. In the U.S.A where the industry is booming, there is growing resistance to it. Feeding on the horror stories emerging from states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, France has banned it outright, as has Bulgaria, Moratoriums have halted it in South Africa, Ireland, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. The people of Romania voted 90% against fracking in a national referendum. People are clearly worried about the risks to an already under-siege environment, and fed up with 20th Century fossil fuel vision the current government has implemented. So when fracking landed on our doorstep, sparking passionate protests, I couldn’t resist the temptation to see the situation in person.
I arrived on day 28 of the protest, a month into the battle. Just hours earlier the direct action camp had been evicted after a 6 day campaign. This hit the headlines, with the arrest of the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas making national news. I’d missed the commotion of that weekend, but as they say – better late than never.
From Brighton I caught a 10 minute train up to Haywards Heath. Settled in the High Weald, four miles to the south of Balcombe. It proved to be the perfect launch pad into the surrounding countryside. To understand what was stake I needed to get a feel of the area under threat and the best way was to walk it.
A mile out of town the dog-walkers gave way to near isolation the only disturbances the sounds of a distressed cow and a snarling chain-saw (not quite from the same direction, fortunately).
The Ordnance Survey Explorer Map labels the landscape an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. On the way I glimpsed the viaduct, a 19th Century structure not built to withstand even most subdued earthquake. Upon this grand structure runs the Brighton-London commuter train line.
The Ardingly Reservoir lies within a mile from Cuadrilla’s test drilling pad, a major source of drinking water for the South-East. Popular with water-sport lovers, the calm waters are lined with the woodlands scattering the area. A recent report by Water UK concludes that”where water is in short supply there may not be enough available from public water supplies or the environment to meet the requirements for hydraulic fracturing.”.
My first glimpse of a fracking drill-rig. A well is bored thousands of feet deep, first vertically, then horizontally. Then millions of litres of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are pumped down the well at high pressure. This causes the rock to fracture, releasing the gas trapped inside of it.
The main gate to Cuadrilla’s drilling site – corporate property heavily guarded by our loyal servants and private security. They formed a protective barrier around the entrance, parting only to let official vehicles past. This was the main focus of the blockade, and the police would take it in shifts to protect it, 20 at a time.
Guidelines for those that needed them. The protestors had camped along both verges of the rural road and were well set up. A community kitchen dished out free grub for the hungry, with food supplies being delivered from the village locals. A variety of information stalls were present, representing everything from legal help to the Green Party’s support.
Over the course of the 2 month blockade 110 arrests were made, some violent, with the police using “pain-compliance” techniques. Many dispute the claim that fracking will bring cheaper energy bills. Even leading economist and climate change expert Lord Stern has called these cheap bill claims “baseless economics”.
Fracking is a deeply political issue, with the government pushing ahead at full speed. Lord Browne (the lovely chap who pushed for university tuition fees rise to £9000), who is lead non-executive on the Cabinet Office board, pressures for the expansion of fracking, while sitting as chairman of Cuadrilla. Conflict of interest perhaps?
There were many stories going around the blockade about police snatch-squads. The tactic used was to wait for certain protestors to use the compost loos, then bundling them into a van as they departed their eco- thrones.
To be continued…
Written by Max Withey