Thirty-one miles south of London, nestled amongst the southern English countryside and almost entirely surrounded by woodland, rests the little village of Balcombe in West Sussex. Not particularly well known for anything, if you’d have looked up Balcombe on the web before say, 2010, It’s more than likely that your search would have predominantly produced pictures and information on the Balcombe Estate, a collection of relatively well-to-do looking buildings that were built way back in 1856.
Over the past few years, however, this has changed dramatically. Any search of the web for Balcombe now becomes saturated with online articles detailing the fierce protesting of hydraulic fracturing by environmental groups and local people. Opposition to the controversial technique reached its peak in the summer of 2013 when weeks of protests were held over the decision of British fracking pioneer Cuadrilla Resources to drill an exploratory well in the Lower Stumble area.
The protests seemed to work as, in January of 2014, Cuadrilla released the following statement; “The analysis of the samples obtained from the exploration well confirmed that the target rock underneath Lower Stumble is naturally fractured. The presence of these fractures and the nature of the rock means that we do not intend to hydraulically fracture the exploration well”
To date, Balcombe itself has remained “frack-free”, falling just short of roughly fifty-two square kilometre Cuadrilla exploration zone (one in which you would be forgiven for assuming the rocks were not already “naturally fractured”). However, other protests across Britain have not been so successful as much of the country is still up for grabs with estimates going up to as high as 60% of UK land being made available to fracking companies through government licensing rounds.
The UK seems to be one of only a handful of European nations going against the grain and looking to aggressively expand their fracking industry. France and Bulgaria have banned any fracking activity whatsoever and countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Ireland and Sweden all have various suspensions in place due to significant health and environmental issues.
What could the reasoning behind this be? Some of the most recent data shows that Europe’s energy consumption as a whole is decreasing, even data local to the UK shows that, since 2006, primary energy consumption has been steadily falling. So why do prominent figures in the British establishment continue to insist on fracking?
Prime Minister David Cameron himself has previously stated, “Shale gas is important for our country” and“could bring 74,000 jobs, over £3bn of investment, give us cheaper energy for the future, and increase our energy security”. However, Andy Chyba, former leadership candidate for the Welsh Green Party and a familiar face to the UK anti-fracking movement disagrees. He argues, “Like every number you have ever heard regarding the potential of fracking, these numbers are essentially plucked out of thin air. What we do know, regarding jobs, is that the vast majority will be short-term, relatively low skill, relatively low pay jobs involved in delivery driving and security.”
“Like every number you have ever heard regarding the (employment) potential of fracking, these numbers are essentially plucked out of thin air”
So what makes the UK differ from other European countries? The same arguments being put forward in other places are being put forward here, yet still, the industry is expanding? There are even tax incentives being thrown at any council willing to have their land drilled by offering them 100% of all the business rates received, rather than the usual 50%. Surely the very fact that schemes like this are having to be enacted shows how unwanted fracking is amongst those living in and around proposed sites.
However, the UK stance begins to make a little more sense when you see who has been put in charge and where. Liz Truss MP has been Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since July of 2014 when she replaced Conservative climate change denier, Owen Patterson. Truss is also a former employee of Shell (yes, the oil company) where she worked as a commercial manager.
After the recent general election, Amber Rudd MP became the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change under the now entirely Conservative government. Rudd’s appointment must have been met with praise from the fracking companies as she has previously come out in support of the drilling stating that the prevention of fracking at certain sites was not “practical” and would “unduly constrain” fracking firms.
Now, herein lies a bigger issue, TTIP. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is an EU-US trade deal that is still currently being negotiated. At first, this doesn’t seem too worrying until you discover that the investment chapter of TTIP would look to grant corporations a whole range of new rights and also allow them to set up secret international tribunals in order to enforce those rights. Believe it or not, this investor-state-dispute settlement mechanism or ISDS would enable corporations to sue any government they see as having stood in the way of profits being made, perhaps via the creation of pesky environmentally protective policies.
This is a problem, as it would most likely mean any new policy created after TTIP would primarily be established not for the wellbeing of the people and environment, but for the wealth of corporations and shareholders. And that means a green light for fracking.
If the United Kingdom is to commit to a truly sustainable future, it must kerb its desire for even more unreliable, untested, unwanted technology and begin to move towards a more renewable-focused energy policy.