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Why fracking has divided the UK

Gulf News 2019-05-16 11:52:09

On the surface, Blackpool is like most other seaside resorts that are dotted around the coast of England and Wales. On the surface, it’s all about sand, souvenirs and sunshine that breaks out over the carnival rides, the cotton candy and cloudy skies.

But there’s much more going on under the surface — so much so that a site on the outskirts of the town has now become ground zero in the fight against fracking in the United Kingdom — with governments across Europe carefully watching the outcome.

On Preston New Road, where big houses behind wrought iron gates give way to green fields, there’s a makeshift anti-fracking camp — likened and styled by environmental activists as their present-day equivalent of Greenham Common, a peacenik Cold War stand against the United States and its stationing of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads aimed at targets across the Communist bloc.

Here, at an old garden centre that used to sell potted plants and bulk bedding soil, there is now a medley of caravans, tents and a portapotty cabin — along a warning sign saying that police are not welcome.

Local resident Peter McDonald is taking his dog for a walk and is studying the signs for the local elections, saying that independent candidate Jane Bickles doesn’t support fracking. “I might as well give her my vote,” McDonald tells Weekend Review. “Not that it will make much of a difference anyway.”

Fracking is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas trapped inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure, which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well. Fracking refers to how the rock is fractured apart by the high-pressure mixture.

It’s a controversial way of extracting gas.

The British government believes that this area and a broad swathe across the north of England has 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the shale deep beneath fields and houses, towns and farms — enough to power and heat the nation for the next century and more.

Environmentalists say that process is flawed, increases global warming by releasing other gases into the already-heated atmosphere, doesn’t advance the cause of renewable and sustainable energy, affects water and air quality and causes damage to homes, with the fracking process causing small localised tremors or earthquakes.

McDonald’s home on nearby Moss Lane has been damaged by some tremors caused by the fracking operations being carried out on and off by energy firm Cuadrilla since it began exploratory operations in 2011.

“I have cracks at the back of the house that have been caused by fracking,” the semi-retired 58-year-old joiner says.

Moving isn’t an option.

“Who’s going to buy a house here?” he asks. “Besides, no bank is going to give you a mortgage on a home that’s affected by fracking.”

Even legal proceedings isn’t really an option. He can’t afford it.

Lancashire County Council voted against fracking. So too most other local authorities up and down England and Wales — the Scottish government has banned fracking altogether — but opposition on the ground is one thing, another trying to convince officials in London that fracking needs to be stopped. It’s been permitted by officials in the various departments of Whitehall that cover the environment, energy and business, and the Conservative government has signed off on it.

But right now, there’s a seismic split between those officials and a new generation of protesters, energised by growing action and concern over global warming, climate change and the so-called “Extinction Rebellion” protests that have occurred in London and other cities across Europe since April.

It’s a Monday when I visit the Preston New Road site. The Cuadrilla operations have temporarily stopped — when earth tremors greater than a magnitude of 0.5 are registered, work must stop.

The company did not respond to a request for an interview.

The site has seen largescale protests in the past, and Lancashire Police have come in for criticism by local magistrates for the manner in which they policed and arrested protesters. Now, there are community police officers watching over the protests, while regular officers are parked discretely nearby in case things escalate.

That tremor threshold itself is a cause of division between frackers and anti-frackers. The day before, the government’s shale gas commissioner resigned because she believed that limit was too low, and was hobbling the industry. Natascha Engle stood aside after just six months into the job, accusing ministers that they were being too heavily influenced by climate change campaigners.

The environmental charity Greenpeace UK said the fact that Engel appeared to have lost patience with the pace of progress was “good news”, while the former Green party leader Natalie Bennett told The Guandian that it was proof that “campaigning works”.

“Faced with a climate emergency, the last thing the UK needs is an industry that will only worsen our dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come,” said Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics. “UK fracking has been a total waste of time, and we can’t afford to waste any more of it.”

Claire Stephenson, a spokeswoman for Frack Free Lancashire, said: “It is more evidence this industry is dying, if not dead. As far as we are concerned, it is good riddance. More people are against fracking than are for it and opposition has steadily grown over the last four to five years. Everywhere fracking turns up, there will be opposition.”

Back on Preston New Road, outside the main gate of the Cuadrilla operations, that opposition comes in the forms of drivers honking horns and waving at the 30 odd protesters who are listening to the regular weekly Monday address by an environmental activist. The demographic of protesters is older, greying, without work or flexible with other commitments.

Through a portable battery-powered guitar speaker and barely audible over the hum of the honking traffic and the No 61 bus that passes every 15 minutes, Dr Jem Bendell is addressing the gathering. Days before, he was in London, participating in the Extinction Rebellion protests, and the Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria is now completely involved in seeking urgent climate action.

“For years, I was told by colleagues in the environmental movement that we should be positive and not be too alarmist, that we should inspire action with a positive vision and tales of success,” he says. “However, decades of that green positivity coincided with humanity releasing more carbon than ever before. Although my work reflected my despair, and has triggered despair in others, that has been transformative. It has meant we have left behind our concerns with conforming with assumptions of what is appropriate and pragmatic. Our despair took us into truth and radicalised us. That is the personal story of so many of the activists in Extinction Rebellion and will make it such a resilient and transformative movement.”

Although fracking has grown rapidly in the United States, it has not been proved viable in Europe despite several attempts, including projects that failed in Poland in 2014.

Fracking has been banned in France, Germany and several other European countries.

North of the border in Scotland, advocates of fracking say it could offset the decline in North Sea oil reserves and boost the Scottish economy. Before making its decision, the Scottish government attracted more than 60,000 responses, of which 99 per cent were opposed to fracking.

–With inputs from agencies

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.