The War Over Fracking Comes to the English Countryside

Environmentalists have been fighting against fracking in the U.S. for years — with little success. Now the British government is pushing to allow drilling for shale gas in the U.K. Will British greens stop fracking from starting?

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Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Antifracking activists and police in the English village of Balcombe on Aug. 19

It may seem like an unlikely place, but the quintessentially English village of Balcombe in the southeastern county of Sussex, has become the scene of an emotional war over fracking. More than a thousand activists have descended on this rural community over the past few weeks, protesting against the exploratory oil drilling that is currently taking place in the lush green countryside on the outskirts of Balcombe.

Fracking — or, as it is properly known, hydraulic fracturing — involves pumping a mix of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rocks and release oil or natural gas that’s trapped inside. While fracking has become widespread in the U.S., where 25,000 new fracked wells are being drilled every year, it has become a major environmental controversy in Britain. Although British Prime Minister David Cameron has lauded its potential economic benefits — which he says will include lower energy bills and thousands of new jobs — environmentalists and activists have voiced worries about water contamination, seismic tremors and the industrialization of Britain’s venerable countryside.

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For all the noise, no shale gas has yet been commercially produced onshore in Britain, but exploratory drilling for gas and oil has been under way across the country since 2011, apart from an unofficial suspension between June 2011 and April 2012 after the process was widely blamed for triggering two minor earthquakes. The protests against fracking in Balcombe, which began on July 25, were given a renewed injection of energy over the weekend with the launch of a high-profile protest camp, initiated by U.K. environmental group No Dash for Gas. In addition to causing the energy firm Cuadrilla to temporarily suspend its test drilling program for six days (from Aug. 16 onward), the campaign culminated in direct action on Aug. 19, with 20 protesters blockading Cuadrilla’s headquarters in Staffordshire, six activists gluing themselves to the glass door of the central London offices of Cuadrilla’s p.r. company and 200 other activists blocking the main road between Balcombe and its neighboring villages.

Kara Moses, a 29-year-old activist and spokesperson for No Dash for Gas, tells TIME that the weekend-long protest camp — which involved plenaries, workshops, skill sharing, marches and “creative acts of civil disobedience” — was meant to bring people together to take action against fracking. “We’ve got to make decisions now about how we’re going to power the country over the next few decades,” she says. “Fracking is not the answer — it’s going to leave a trail of broken communities, ruined countryside and contaminated water.”

A number of Balcombe residents have also turned out to back the protests. Katy Dunne, a 32-year-old canine behaviorist, has been supporting the rallies in her home village since they began three weeks ago. Dunne is heartened by what she sees. “Look at the people here,” she says, gesturing to the crowds emerging from Balcombe’s tiny train station on Aug. 16. “This is becoming a mass social movement that’s growing and crossing all cultural and political boundaries. It’s uniting very conservative people in the countryside with the radical green movement in an unprecedented way.”

Not everyone in the village is happy about the direction the protests are going, though. The police operation in Balcombe, which began on July 25, is hugely visible with a row of officers flanking the entrance to the oil-drilling site and dozens of police vans parked up on the fringes of the protest camp. Derek Earl, 71, points out that many Balcombe residents — himself included — have remained neutral and are embarrassed about the outside activists who have so enthusiastically taken up the antifracking cause in Balcombe. “The moderate people of Balcombe are thoroughly fed up with the protesters’ actions,” the retired builder says. “They do shout a lot and they’re just making an inconvenience for people trying to go to work.”

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In a statement, Cuadrilla’s CEO Francis Egan emphasized the exploratory nature of the current operation in Balcombe. “External groups protesting against hydraulic fracturing at Balcombe do so without any work proposal from Cuadrilla to judge,” he said. “Any hydraulic-fracturing proposal would require a detailed environmental-impact assessment, public consultations and multi-agency regulatory reviews, all of which would be available for scrutiny.”

For all the recent attention, the process of fracking is actually nothing new. As the oil-and-gas industry is quick to point out, fracking has been used on 200 wells across the U.K. over the past two decades. But Richard Davies, a professor of energy at Durham University, explains that what is different today is the widespread industrial deployment when it comes to fracking for shale gas rather than conventional gas — meaning there would be a far greater number of fracking wells than ever before. While research published by Durham University in 2013 found that water contamination and earthquakes related to fracking for shale gas are very rare, there are risks — but those risks have more to do with drilling than fracking. “One thing there is evidence of in the U.S. is that wells can leak gas,” Davies says. “When you drill a well down to 3 km [1.9 miles], you need to be sure it is sealed properly. So really any potential dangers are about drilling wells and not about the fracking itself. It’s a subtle distinction but a very important one.”

Those environmental concerns are balanced by the potential economic boon fracking offers. A recent British Geological Survey report found evidence of 1.3 trillion cu. ft. of unconventional gas reserves under just two counties in northern England alone. (It is thought that roughly one-tenth of this could be accessed, and even that amount would be enough to last the U.K. for some 25 years.) And the government is eager to exploit fracking, with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announcing on July 19 that shale-gas producers will pay just 30% tax on their profits, compared with the 62% tax that the conventional oil-and-gas industry has traditionally paid.

Supporters of fracking in Britain generally point to the example of the U.S., where the exploitation of shale gas has led to a dramatic reduction in the price of natural gas, and consequently, carbon emission, as relatively clean natural gas has replaced dirty coal as a power source. But a paper published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests that the U.K. might be unable to reap similar benefits because of higher operational costs and a host of legal, planning and environmental factors that will almost certainly slow down the rate of development. It’s not just the fact that extracting gas on a small, crowded island is somewhat different from extracting it from enormous swaths of lightly populated land in Texas and Colorado. Unlike in the U.S., private-property owners in Britain don’t necessarily own the subsurface-mineral rights to their property, so they often won’t earn royalties for allowing fracking on their land. The green lobby is also considerably stronger in Britain than in the U.S., and environmentalists in the U.K., who’ve watched the dash for gas in the U.S. with trepidation, have had more time to prepare their opposition.

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Despite the challenges, Cameron remains convinced that fracking is in Britain’s best interests. “Fracking has become a national debate in Britain — and it’s one that I’m determined to win,” he wrote in a column in the Sunday Telegraph on Aug. 11. “If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive.”

Not everyone is convinced by Cameron’s argument, however. Villages up and down Britain have vowed to block any attempts at drilling. And Tom Burke, founding director of E3G — an independent organization acting to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development— says he cannot see any clear-cut political or economic benefits to the British government’s profracking agenda. “Nobody’s going to be doing any production from fracking this decade,” he says. “Nor is fracking going to do anything to lower energy bills because by the time someone actually gets round to fracking, we’re going to be much closer to a global market in gas, so gas will be exported without necessarily lowering the costs in the U.K. I suspect there’s going to be a lot of talk about broken promises.”

Greenpeace, the international environmental organization, has called the British government on what it sees as double standards. “The U.K. government’s position and policy on fracking is fundamentally incompatible with meaningful action on climate change,” Jim Footner, Greenpeace’s head of campaigns, tells TIME. “Chancellor George Osborne’s dash for gas will seriously jeopardize the U.K.’s ability to reach its emissions-reductions targets.”

In the meantime, tea-fueled emotions are running high in rural Balcombe, with crowds of placard-waving protesters — bearing slogans like “Would you kindly frack off?” — undeterred in their battle against fracking. And the outcome will have an enormous impact on the future of energy in Britain.

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