Industry

Guest Post: Balcombe and Beyond – the story of the UK frack free movement

In this guest post, author Martin Dale explains how he came to write his new book about the anti-fracking movement, what he learned and what he thinks will happen next.

BalcombeAndBeyondThe first I heard of the application to drill at Balcombe was an article in the West Sussex County Times in early 2012, but since it was a subject that I knew little about in a location that I had barely heard of, I gave it only a passing glance. Looking back, how I wish that I had taken the time to investigate it properly! My personal situation was rather different back then. I was still trying to adapt to an as yet undiagnosed illness that I contracted in 2009 (diagnosis did not come until 2013) and even had I given the article more than just the cursory peek, I doubt that I would have been in a position to have done much about it. I very much believe that everything happens for a reason and that things come together at the right time – the Balcombe Blockade in August 2013 was my time! The anti-fracking movement has opened up a brand new chapter in my life. I have been unbelievably lucky to have met some incredible, kind, loving, thoughtful, intelligent people from all sorts of backgrounds that I probably would never have met if it wasn’t for Balcombe, many of whom I have become firm friends with and who helped, in their own various ways, with bringing my book into reality. To me, the anti-fracking movement is more than a campaign; it is a community – one that transcends politics, social class, education, employment, religion/spirituality and nationality. I have been involved in a small number of protest groups and campaigns in the past on matters of planning policy, but none of them had that unique sense of togetherness and unity that there is in the anti-fracking movement. I feel honoured to be a small part of it.

Having spent a considerable amount of time researching hydraulic fracturing in the immediate aftermath of the Balcombe Blockade starting, I was keen to make a trip to the camp in person, but lacked the means to get there since I do not drive and public transport was simply not an option. I tried to persuade someone to take me there, but they were hesitant – the coverage on the news channels put them off. However, after bumping into a mutual friend (who has since sadly passed away) changed that perception. He had spent his working life in the oil and gas industry and did not support fracking at all. Despite being elderly and in quite poor health, he took part in the ‘Reclaim the Power’ weekend protest and it was clear that the media coverage was nothing at all like the reality of the situation. This settled it and the following weekend I was able to get to Balcombe. The two of us then became fairly regular visitors to the camp and attended most of the major organised events thereafter. My experiences there and listening to various speakers only made my quest to research the industry more determined.

Although I was giving assistance to groups contesting applications elsewhere in the county, I felt that I wanted to do more – to do something to help the campaign directly. Because of my personal situation, I was not in a position to be able to be physically present at other camps – if getting to Balcombe was hard enough, getting to Barton Moss or other northern locations was impossible. It was around May 2014 that I had the idea of writing a book. I had by this time written, or was in the process of completing, 18 other non-fiction books, but this latest project was very different from my previous works. I had seen that a number of books on hydraulic fracturing had already been written, but they were all published pre-Balcombe and focussed almost entirely on persuading the reader of their particular argument for or against fracking, mainly with the foremost subject of attention being on the American experiences. I wanted my book to be different. I wanted it to tell the story of those actually fighting the industry in the UK. The mainstream media had already painted a picture of the anti-fracking campaigner as being either a particular kind of generic, trouble-making, benefit-scrounging stereotype, or conversely as very wealthy, land-owning, Not-In-My-Back-Yard businessmen. Neither is true or accurate. I wanted it to be clear that we are all normal, everyday people from all sorts of backgrounds. Being up against a very powerful and wealthy industry with massive political support, I also wanted my book to not just tell a story, but to directly help the campaign too. This is why I intended for it to be a fundraiser from the outset.

Did my views change since writing the book? No. I was vehemently opposed to fracking before I starting working on it, and I continue to be opposed to it now. If anything, the information and detail that I discovered has only made me more determined to continue the campaign against the industry being established in the UK. Having served as a Councillor on a Planning Committee until August 2014 (including sitting as a Vice-Chairman of Planning throughout 2012), I already had an understanding of, and a deep distrust in, the UK planning system – I had seen how poor planning can create real harm in communities and for the environment. I had seen the weaknesses in the planning system, how it favours economic factors over balancing all social, environmental and economic issues. The one thing that I can honestly say that I did have a change of view on is policing. Whereas before I had the highest trust and faith in the Police, the results of my own personal experiences and from my research has lead me to question the fact of whether people are really treated as innocent until proven guilty and whether peaceful protest is becoming criminalised or even politically policed, where simply opposing Government policy is enough to warrant suspicion whether or not you have ever committed an offence. Is “just following orders” being used as an excuse to release oneself of responsibility?

I believe that the political will from the Conservatives, UKIP, Labour and Liberal Democrats to press ahead with shale oil and gas will ensure that this is not a subject that will either be swept under the carpet or fade into the background anytime soon. Whilst I hope that the industry will not gather a foothold in the UK, I do fear that one or two wells will in all likelihood be drilled – the leaked letter from George Osborne to Ministers giving advice to Cuadrilla shows just how desperate the government is to push through fracking no matter what, even if it means advocating the overruling of locally made democratic decisions. However, I strongly believe that the more the Government pushes, the more they try to undermine our rights and democracy, and the more they try and impose this damaging industry upon our communities, the more people will see fracking for what it really is – a pollutive, dirty, harmful industry – and they will take a stance against it. The one and only fracked well in the UK failed. A drilling operation in East Yorkshire, which initially planned to conduct a mini-frack test, also resulted in a plethora of incidents with eight permit breaches in just three months! I believe that more and more people will realise three main truths:

1) That all wells will leak eventually – it’s simple physics to understand that steel corrodes and concrete deteriorates, particularly when exposed to extreme pressures and cocktails of chemicals. The industry itself acknowledges this as fact;

2) That ‘safe’ and/or ‘regulated’ fracking is an oxymoron – you cannot regulate or consider something safe when there are so many unknowns. As Rathlin Energy, operator of the mini-frack test site at West Newton, highlights “there are by the specific nature of these exploratory operations a number of unknowns, ranging from the actual geology to formation pressures and formation fluids or gas composition…some of these unknowns gave rise to unanticipated on site operational challenges.”; and

3) That the claims of economic ‘benefits’ are unfounded – this is an incredibly expensive industry, with massive operational costs and a much lower profit margin than conventional drilling. It requires extremely high oil prices just to break even, with most drillers in the USA (and elsewhere) operating at a colossal loss. Most UK-based companies are also already in enormous debt before they have even started. Investors and pension funds in the fossil fuel industry should seriously consider the safety of their investments. The potential financial contributions to communities are tiny compared to the potential from community-owned renewable energy.

Bearing this in mind, I think that the industry will continue to push for further deregulation and tax breaks. It is clear that it has immense political influence to try and achieve exactly that. I also see the industry continuing to press for political action against the anti-fracking campaign. Again, we are already seeing this through the excessive policing and also through an increasingly common use of court orders to try and make protest at or near sites unlawful. I wouldn’t be surprised if community protection camps essentially become outlawed, and so the campaign does need to consider how to adapt accordingly, to seek out what other peaceful methods can be used. The latest developments, such as the Infrastructure Bill, will continue to be a wake up call for everyone in the UK to see exactly what is happening and to what lengths the industry and Government are prepared to go. This Bill threatens more than just fracking, but also has serious implications for wildlife, the environment and human rights. It will also expose what I can only describe as a thin veil of democracy over the industry. We saw how a consultation in 2014 on changes to underground access rights had over 40,000 respondents and a 99% rate of objection (i.e. a sizeable number of pro-fracking individuals also do not wish to allow drilling under their land without permission) was casually swept aside and discarded. More recently, we have seen the opportunity for a moratorium in England defeated due to the mass abstention of the Labour Party MPs, whilst they claimed a ‘victory’ for introducing 13 new regulations instead. We now see that these new regulations are being watered down in the House of Lords. Where is the victory in that? On the other hand, the moratorium in Scotland and the movement towards a fracking ban in Wales are both positive steps, though I am very cautious that these are not complete bans, that the risk of fracking still looms over our heads, and also that the moratorium does not prohibit Underground Coal Gasification.

Although I have included a few chapters that explore the process of hydraulic fracturing, the arguments for and against and also a look at some of the other unconventional extraction methods being proposed for the UK, the book is primarily intended to tell the story of the anti-fracking movement as opposed to persuading people one way or the other, so it is difficult to try and pinpoint any key findings from my research. Instead, I hope that it will provide readers with an understanding of this contentious issue and the reason why so many people up and down the country are uniting and are prepared to take to the streets to oppose this industry. My hope for people having read the book is to help them to decide how they feel about the subject and to use it as a springboard from which to conduct their own research, to go and find out the facts for themselves. Don’t just take my word for it, go away and investigate the issues and discover them for yourself. I would also like the book to help show people the importance of looking properly at any planning applications, to search out and find the detail and small print, to not just take things at face value or at what the companies are telling us. More importantly, I would hope that it will encourage readers to find out the names of companies involved in the applications, their financial backers and to see what they are saying – often what communities and councils are being told is very different to what investors and industry services are being told. This is something which the book explores in detail!

Balcombe and Beyond: The UK’s Frack Free Movement by Martin D Dale, with a Foreword by James Bolam and Sue Jameson, is available from amazon.co.uk in both Paperback and Kindle versions at

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balcombe-Beyond-Frack-Free-Movement/dp/1505265738/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423317533&sr=8-1&keywords=Balcombe+and+Beyond

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