Anti-fracking protesters in Lancashire
Lancashire is potentially home to some of the largest shale gas reserves in the UK. Unsurprisingly, there have been mixed reactions to this piece of news: excitement and the building of test sites from fracking companies, and anxiety and anger from protesters, locals and anyone worried about a bunch of chemicals being blasted into the groundwater under the British countryside.
At the beginning of August, several hundred activists – including many from the environmentalist group Reclaim the Power – set up camp in a field next to a proposed fracking site just outside of Blackpool. The target of their demonstration is Cuadrilla, an oil and gas company that started looking for shale gas in the area in 2010, gaining planning permission for the first exploratory well in April of that year. By March of 2011 the company had four wells in operation, one of which caused two small earthquakes in Blackpool, leading to a temporary ban on fracking by the British government.
Since the ban was lifted at the end of 2012 Cuadrilla have set up three drilling sites in West Sussex and eight in Lancashire. I took the train up to Blackpool last weekend to meet those protesting the exploratory wells, and one local who’s very keen for the drills to move in.
Arriving in Blackpool I headed to the “nana camp”, so-called because many of those staying there are mothers and grandmothers. They’ve been camped out next to a proposed fracking site since the 7th of August and plan to stay after protesters from Reclaim the Power leave, but Cuadrilla has now started legal action to have them removed. At the end of July, three local councillors admitted they had received money from a company conducting seismic tests on behalf of Cuadrilla. Understandably, those occupying the field no longer have a lot of faith in their local politicians.
Becks (centre) and Nicki (right) at the "nana camp"
“We have nowhere to turn – the government doesn’t listen,” said Becks, a grandmother and local resident. “The council aren’t listening and we’ve seen in other areas that the police aren’t particularly on our side. So this is what it’s come to. We are nanas and mums, but 25 of us took a field and 25 of us will be under a fracking drill before it goes into the ground if we have to, because this is not going to happen on our watch.”
I brought up the money given to local councillors by Cuadrilla. “A lot of those people receiving money still don’t know what fracking is – they really don’t,” said Nicki, a mother and local resident. “They’re saying that the regulation is all there and there’s nothing to worry about. But can we trust that regulation? Probably not, from examples both here and abroad. The council have given up on us altogether.”
Voices in the local business lobby have branded the anti-fracking protest "undemocratic", implying that it’s not really representative of local opinion. Protesters claim otherwise, telling me that 14,000 official complaints have now been submitted to the council about the new proposed drilling site on the outskirts of Blackpool.
Anti-fracking protesters outside the Cuadrilla office
I asked Becks and Nicki why they were so opposed to fracking. “We’ve been following what’s happening in Australia and what’s happening in America because it’s coming here,” Becks told me. “Cancer clusters; huge increases in still births; neurological diseases; children getting nose bleeds and rashes all the time. How dare they decide that that is acceptable? I have four children and two grandchildren on the Fylde coast, and I don’t want fracking anywhere, but this is more personal because I’m fighting for what’s mine at the moment. It’s like we’re almost collateral damage; an acceptable loss to profit.”
On Monday, the Reclaim the Power camp organised a series of direct actions against Cuadrilla and their business associates. No one would tell me what was planned before it actually happened – presumably because Climate Camp, the former incarnation of the group, was infiltrated by police and energy sector spies in the past, meaning they aren’t particularly keen on sharing their intentions with people they’ve just met.
Taken along for the day, I found out that the group’s plan was to occupy Cuadrilla’s office, a building in a business park on the outskirts of Blackpool. The blueprints basically involved two activists dressing up in suits and pretending they had a meeting with someone at the company, before holding the doors open for everyone else to run in. Surprisingly, this dress-up routine actually worked, and soon everyone was barging their way past the receptionist, the only person on hand to stop them.
Demonstrators forcing their way into the Lancashire Chamber of Commerce office
Unfortunately, once everyone got inside they realised that the stairs up to Cuadrilla’s actual office were locked, so they had to make do with occupying the ground floor office of the Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, a body that wants fracking to start in the area “as soon as possible”.
With all of the doors secured, the occupiers were left to deliberate what they should do next; was the Lancashire Chamber of Commerce really a decent enough target to try to hold overnight?
I put that question to Tim Young, one of the demonstrators, and asked what they hoped to achieve. He told me they were there to stand up for local residents who felt they weren’t being listened to. “Cuadrilla’s activities here are completely against the will of the local people,” he said. “I think that’s endemic of fracking across the country. This industry is completely undemocratic. What is democratic is local people taking a stand. If Cuadrilla’s going to impose itself on the people of Fylde [the region of Lancashire where Cuadrilla have built the majority of their wells], then the people of Fylde have every right to impose themselves on Cuadrilla.”
Occupiers inside the Lancashire Chamber of Commerce office
I mentioned the argument that fracking in the UK will be safer than in the US and Australia, as long as it’s well regulated. “Fracking is a pretty crude form of extraction,” said Tim. “You’re talking about exploding the ground underneath a well – these are things which, by their nature, are quite crude and dangerous. Also, we realistically need to be phasing out fossil fuels in the next couple of decades if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change; getting more and more fossil fuels out of the ground is not how we do that.”
Riot police began arriving soon after the group had made their way through the doors, and the protesters still outside called to let the occupiers know that the cops were about to storm the building. Nobody was in the mood for spending the night in a cell, so everyone snuck out of one of the back windows and headed back to the camp for a celebratory beer and some ceilidh dancing.
With the criticism of the protests as “undemocratic” still fresh in my mind, I thought I should speak to someone local who’s in support of the fracking companies descending on Lancashire. So, on Tuesday morning, I went to meet Claire Smith, a Blackpool B&B owner and member of the Northwest Energy Taskforce (NET), a pro-fracking lobby group sponsored by Cuadrilla and Centrica British Gas.
She argued that fracking in the area would provide a boost to the local economy. “We have a lot of unemployment in this area,” she said. “Tourism is what we do, and we do it really, really well, but the upshot of that is that a lot of the employment in the area is seasonal and a lot of it in the tourism industry is mid to low-end jobs. It’s about the jobs.”
I saw her point, but mentioned that areas full of heavy industry aren’t exactly the most popular holiday destinations – that fracking might damage the local tourism industry. “Nothing in this life comes for free, does it?” she countered. “And if we want the investment and we want the jobs and we want the improved economy that goes with it, then we’re gonna have to suffer a bit of pain, but that’s being a realist, isn’t it? Do you know what I mean?”
Protesters outside the Cuadrilla office
Before I could ask whether she was worried about her own business falling victim to this problem Claire began back-peddling. “Cuadrilla say they can do it safely and responsibly,” she said. “There have been horrendous stories in America, but we’re years on from that – different landmass, different this, different that. But we can learn from that; we can learn from America; we can learn from Australia.”
I suggested that it’s a matter of trust; does she trust Cuadrilla when they say they’ll drill in a clean and responsible way? “Yes, because it’s in their best interests,” she answered. “If they mess it up, they’re not going to be able to continue. They want the money, and the only way they’re gonna get the money is by doing it safely and responsibly”
I asked Claire what she thought about the local councillors who’d accepted money from a company working for Cuadrilla, but she claimed this wasn’t relevant as the matter rested with a planning committee and not the whole council. I asked if she’d received any money for her part in the NET. “There’s no money involved – absolutely not,” she said. “I have not had a penny off anybody. Basically, when there’s anti-fracking information in the media, there are a group of business people who are willing to give their opinions as to why we think it’s a good thing, just to give a balanced perspective.”
Whatever’s reported, Claire and her colleagues at the NET don’t have a lot to worry about. At the end of last month British ministers gave the go-ahead for increased fracking across the UK, including drilling in national parks in “exceptional circumstances”. And when a government are prepared to ignore protections on some of the UK’s most important rural areas for something as vague as “exceptional circumstances”, there’s not a lot of hope for the rest of the country.
Regardless of all that – and with all the odds stacked against them – Becks, Nicki and the rest of their camp are still living in that field, doing all they can to halt the expansion of fracking in the UK.
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