Balcombe’s wake-up call
As Caroline Lucas MP was arrested at the Balcombe fracking site (19 August) she spoke of the “democratic deficit” being so enormous that “people are left with very little option but to take peaceful, non violent direct action.” In 2012 the TUC’s annual Congress opposed gas fracking. Motion 43: “The principle of precaution should be applied when developing new energies and the health of people and the environment should be put before profit.” And this summer, speaking up for gas fracking, the Prime Minister told the Express, “I want all parts of our nation to share in the benefits: North or South, Conservative or Labour … we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country.”
Balcombe, 6 August
But will gas fracking will mean lower energy prices? Not according to Alistair Buchanan , chief executive of Ofgem, the energy regulator: “It is true that the US has transformed its energy market thanks to shale, but in our time-frame, when Britain will rely on gas for its power stations, this is not going to happen on any significant scale, either here or elsewhere in Europe. Even if the US allows exports (and assuming they come to Europe), it will still cost about the same as we are paying for our winter gas now. No one doubts that there is plenty of gas out there, but what is critical to Britain is how much will be available over the next five years and how much we will have to pay for it to ensure that it comes here.”
Does public support count? The Prime Minister argued over the summer that “If neighbourhoods can see the benefits – and get reassurance about the environment – then I don’t see why fracking shouldn’t get real public support.” But what if it doesn’t? The NoFIBs petition (No Facking In Balcombe Society) was supported by 82% of local residents. It, too, is based on the precautionary principle:
The work of Cuadrilla poses an unacceptable level of risk to our water supply, air purity and overall environment. We, the undersigned, stand opposed to exploratory drilling or fracking for gas or oil because we believe that these activities put human health at risk, both of those living close to wells, but also of those whose water comes from an affected area.
The TUC motion originated from protests supported by trade unions and community organisations in the North West, where Cuadrilla first made the earth tremor. It adds: “The fracking method of gas extraction should be condemned unless proven harmless for people and the environment. This type of energy production is not sustainable as it relies on a limited resource. Until now, there is evidence that it causes earthquakes and water pollution and further investigation should be carried out before any expansion.”
In a field outside Balcombe village…
What of the environment? At Balcombe on a day visit, I had a long conversation with a local resident about the diverse environmental impacts of Cuadrilla’s drilling operation – see photo. The continuous noise, vibration and 24-hour lighting had driven birdlife, bats and badgers away. She feared the long term effects of injecting millions of gallons of chemical laden water to frack the gas on water pollution – the water table lies at 700 feet below ground level, the shale gas at 3000 feet down, so the drill pierces the water table. A few days later we also spoke about methane gas escapes and flaring.
She said, “We’ve been ignored. The petition, our planning objections, letters to MPs, our demonstrations haven’t stopped them. 10,000 people might.”
Who fills the gap politics has vacated? Speaking at the a recent Friends of the Earth meeting, John Ashton, for ten years the government’s roving climate change ambassador, argued that the struggle on climate change “is now entering a decisive phase.” The words Must, Now, Can should guide our thinking: “We must do whatever it takes. Otherwise the consequences of climate change will undermine security and prosperity. We must build a carbon neutral energy system, within a generation.”
But, he said, “The fact is, we can’t fix the climate problem, or any of the other problems on the agenda you have set, unless we can now fix politics itself. ” His prescription is to “Fill the gap that politics has vacated. Connect with the base of society. Mobilise coalitions to offer people solutions to problems that politics in its current form ignores. And do that on the basis of a more strategic assessment than I suspect you have of what is to be done and where you can change the game.”
And, as I was speaking with a local resident last week, a child ran by: “I love waking up in the morning here!” she said.