British state thuggery forcing through shale gas

Matthew Worsdale reports from the front line of the fight against fracking

The increasingly authoritarian ConDem government is forcing shale oil and gas drilling on to the people of Balcombe in Sussex, despite an overwhelming majority who are against the development.

Last week the less than impartial Environmental Agency, whose stated aim is “to protect or enhance the environment, taken as a whole”, infuriated residents by granting a mining waste permit to Caudrilla, which is 30% owned by ex-BP chief (and now ConDem adviser) John Browne, despite a total of 842 objections.

On hearing that the Department for Energy and Climate Change had granted the final drilling permit, an assembly from the local community and activists descended on the site entrance near Balcombe last Thursday morning.

The trucks arrived at dawn (suggesting that Caudrilla knew the outcome of the permit decision in advance). Throughout Thursday, the site entrance was barred by the protesters.

Protesting about Balcombe frack

On Friday morning, however, police arrived in force and after a prolonged stand-off, finally broke up the human chain that had been formed as a blockade. This is not the first protest against ConDem policy that has generated a wholly disproportionate use of police force.

Anti frack protesters at Balcombe

Media and first-hand reports reveal a use of “pressure points”, which can be life threatening if misused. Arrests number 23 so far and have been under questionable anti-union laws that promote the rights of strike-breakers to enter industrial sites.

Undeterred, the protesters have vowed to remain for the forseeable future. Their resistance is already putting a strain on Sussex police resources. They are above all concerned that Caudrilla could begin the process of fracking at any time, despite giving assurances that it would need to re-apply for a separate permit.

In the mental universe inhabited by George Osborne, and his narrow band of supporters of fossil fuel development at literally any cost, “environmental issues” remain an abstraction and water (like land, and energy) is an infinite resource. So it’s OK to use millions of gallons on a single fracking job.

But the UK’s water supply is already strained, to say nothing of future impacts from a rising population and climate change. Voices in the water industry have already raised their concerns about the ability to meet demand. And unlike gas, a shortage of drinking water is a life or death issue. But that’s not the half of it.

DECC minister Michael Fallon has, willfully or not, deceived the general public with a recent assertion that there is no evidence of water contamination “anywhere in the world” from fracking. He should have done his research.

A cursory internet search will reveal scientific papers documenting a clear trend: methane concentrations in groundwater increase in closer proximity to gas wells. In addition, as you can see from Caudrilla’s own impression of the well they have drilled, the drill shaft is less than the suggested safe distance from the water aquifier underground.

Caudrilla Drill Shaft
Caudrilla's own technical drawing of their drill shaft, which shows that they are not within a proposed safe distance from the drill shaft to the water table [click to enlarge]

Most national newspapers, keen to maintain the “it might not be safe but there might be benefits and we should trust the government” hegemony, have been trying to weaken the unity between local residents and environmentalists by implying there is a “resentment” by locals towards activists from further afield.

This is not what you hear if you speak to those at the blockade, who are in open communication with other anti-fracking groups on social networking sites. Even the Daily Telegraph had to report that 82% of Balcombe residents were against the drilling.

And the impact of any fracking would extend far beyond local people. Caudrilla has omitted the concentrations of key chemicals used in the fracking fluid from their (approved) application. These contaminants would be unleashed in the water that supplies 85,000 households, and untold consequences would follow from widespread air pollution.

In particular, I spoke to a local who was very concerned about one family of pollutants – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – produced in the flare that would burn off excess gas at the site. A bit of research reveals these chemicals are indeed toxic and carcinogenic at very low concentrations. But again, Caudrilla’s documents say nothing about this.

You know the coalition is worried that there could be blowback when they plan to offer communities financial incentives – or bribes – to keep quiet. The inescapable conclusion is that only weight of numbers will stop fracking in the UK, of the kind that the Balcombe community resistance typifies.

The solution to Britain’s energy supply needs lies meanwhile, as it has for a long time, in harnessing the vast potential of renewable energy in the form of offshore and onshore wind, tidal and solar, so that future generations are not condemned to climate catastrophe.

31 July 2013

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