I guess we should get this gag out of the way now.
While the economy continues to stagnate, you'll no doubt have noticed that energy prices are continuing to rise. So it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that the government are desperate to find both a home-grown energy source and a way to stimulate economic growth. The answer to both of these questions seemed to have arrived in one happy package when a survey showed that British reserves of shale gas were far greater than previously thought. Sure enough, David Cameron quickly announced that he would throw a 70 percent tax break to anyone who could get it out of the ground and into the bank.
The problem with extracting shale gas is that it’s buried thousands of feet beneath the ground and to get it out you have to use a technique known as fracking. Fracking is essentially injecting the earth with a mixture of water and chemicals from a hydraulic well, which then fractures the rock and, in theory, allows the gas to escape via the cracks created. It’s kind of like giving the earth a very lucrative enema. Of course, cracking the earth with high-powered water injections isn’t nearly as safe as it might sound. Fracking has been linked with everything from ecological catastrophe to asthma to flammable tap water (as demonstrated in the video below). In fact, the last time fracking was attempted in the UK it caused an earthquake.
But the Conservative government aren’t the type to let minor issues like earthquakes and flammable water put them off, especially now that interest from the fracking companies is allowing them to talk about investment and jobs rather than cuts and unemployment.
Which brings us to West Sussex and the picturesque town of Balcombe, where the Department for Energy has granted the energy company Cuadrilla permission to drill a 3,000ft exploratory fracking well. Local residents and environmental activists are understandably up in arms over the thought of their town turning into an industrial wasteland and have been picketing the site since last Thursday. They scored a minor victory when a lorry carrying drilling equipment was forced to back down after a seven-hour standoff.
With the protesters on a high and extra police being called in to ensure that the equipment finally reaches its destination, I travelled to Balcombe on Friday to see if the demonstrators could hold off the energy giant for another day.
When I arrived at the protest, which was taking place at the site's entrance, there were a few tents spread out around the gate. People were cooking breakfast and drinking tea while children and dogs ran around. It was perhaps the most civilised protest I've ever attended – a bit like how I'd imagine Camp Bestival to feel if Ocado were in charge of the catering.
At least it was until five minutes later when this guy decided to start his own one-man roadblock. The early morning commute doesn't tend to be a time when people are overly sympathetic to environmental issues, and this became evident when the guy in the Golf displayed his all-encompassing apathy towards fracking by not bothering to take his foot off the pedal and just ploughing straight through the protester instead.
Despite a pretty spectacular fall, he seemed OK, suffering only from a minor limp, the loss of a Croc and the realisation that standing in front of oncoming traffic probably isn't the best way to get your point across.
Opting for a less dangerous strategy, the bulk of the protesters rolled a huge log across the entrance to the site. They then sat around to discuss tactics. Although it was a friendly, inclusive atmosphere, there were already signs of a divide between those who were and were not prepared to be arrested.
As everyone waited around for the lorries to arrive, some of the protesters tried to talk to the site security about “how [they] slept at night” and if they “enjoy poisoning the water supply”. They didn't really look like they enjoyed the thought of poisoning the water supply, to be honest, but rather than express that opinion verbally they opted instead to stare at nothing while the guys in the blue hats filmed each exchange.
As I was walking around the protest site it struck me that these people weren't exactly the hardcore environmentalists I'd been expecting. They were just local people who were understandably upset about their town being exploited as a working experiment for energy companies. I bumped into Ezra, above, and asked him what he's most concerned about when it comes to fracking.
"It's a total ecological disaster. I live right on the river Ouse in Lewes. Once they start pumping chemicals in there they'll kill off a lot of bugs, then there'll be nothing for the fish or voles or birds to eat. It affects the whole food chain. So, ultimately, the knock-on effect is that it will completely wreck the local ecology and kill the river. All that loss just for private profit."
I wanted to talk to Ezra for a bit longer but he told me he "had to go live on a bed of nails in front of the site entrance", which sounded kind of important, so I left him to it.
And it turned out it was important – or important enough to agitate the police, anyway. A liaison officer wandered over to advise that static protests are illegal if they block a public highway; cue a torrent of questions about whether walking in circles very slowly in front of the gate is considered static.
SPOILER ALERT: It is.
After making it clear that they weren’t going to move along voluntarily, the protesters took up their positions on the log, linking arms to form a human fence. The police arrived in waves of 30 until they outnumbered the protesters three to one.
After 15 minutes of final warnings, the police moved in to break up the human wall by force. The protesters chanted, “Scum”, as the police grabbed at their first targets.
"Why always me?"
The protesters put up a good effort and managed to hold their place on the log for close to half an hour, but it wasn't long until the police – with their superior numbers and right to forcibly move anyone they want – overwhelmed them, making a steady stream of arrests.
As their numbers dwindled, the last few rallied together for the final stretch of their fight. However, as soon as the police started to employ their sophisticated "violently twist their ears" tactic, cracks started to appear and they were able to finally break down the human wall.
With the protesters either arrested or moved to the side, the police formed a box around the gate and waited for the lorries to arrive. Nicky here paced up and down giving them a piece of her mind. I asked her why she was so upset.
"Well, it’s intimidation, really. I mean, the government don’t listen to what their people say and then they get the police to enforce what they want, not what we want. I pay tax and I feel disgusted that some of my money is going towards this. It makes me sick to my stomach."
As police kept the protesters at bay, the site gates were opened to allow a JCB to move the log. As they rolled it away a tangible sense of loss fell over the protesters. Their cherished log – the mascot of their struggle – had gone. Their bid to keep out drilling equipment had failed (for the day, at least). I caught up with Julie, another activist, to find out if she thought the log's removal was the beginning of the end for Balcombe.
"This is definitely not the end. This is just the beginning," she told me. "There were a few disagreeable moments today and it is sad, but I’m very glad that people have come and made a stand. We need to show people that what happens here will have a huge affect on the rest of the country."
Julie seemed pretty depressed about the whole thing, so I went off in search of some positivity, which I found in the shape of this guy – Ben, a graduate from Brighton. I asked him what’s next for the Balcombe protest.
“I’d like to think that more people will come down tomorrow and try to resist the equipment coming through," he said. "I was just amazed that they got us on trade union legislation. Apparently we were impeding their right to work. I think they realised that they couldn’t get us for obstructing the road since this is a private highway rather than a public one."
Once those who'd been arrested were carted off to the police station, the first delivery lorry turned up. Under a police escort, it made its way past the remaining protestors, who welcomed it with a chorus of, "Frack off!"
Soon after the first truck had entered the site we found out that there was a backlog of 15 lorries, all hoping to get onsite while they still had that taxpayer-funded police escort guiding them through the throng.
By mid-afternoon three trucks had made it through under escort and it was clear that the protesters weren’t going to relive any of their victory from the previous day. With 14 arrested, their numbers had taken a large hit and I was unsure if they’d even be able to block the site again, let alone put a complete stop to the exploratory drilling. Regardless, at least the people of Balcombe have shone a light on grassroots opposition to fracking and demonstrated that positive government rhetoric doesn't always translate into local support.
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