In a landmark ruling last week, the U.K. government overturned a local council's decision not to allow energy company Cuadrilla to conduct high-powered hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in Lancashire in Northern England. Four horizontal wells are now due to be drilled and fracked at Preston New Road, in between Blackpool and Preston, setting off national alarm that fracking, which is now being given the green light in Lancashire, could quickly spread elsewhere.
Cuadrilla also has a chance to appeal the original decision not to allow fracking on another site nearby. Unfortunately, Lancashire has been here before, with the first, ill-fated U.K. search for shale gas taking place at Preese Hall near Blackpool in 2011. The search was called off after it caused two minor earthquakes, sparking an investigation into the risks of fracking and the introduction of tighter regulations.
At the end of last year, however, the government handed out 159 licenses (subject to safety and environmental checks) to companies seeking to frack across the UK. The verdict on the second Lancashire site is due to be reached at the beginning of next month. Applications and appeals are also open on sites in Yorkshire, West Sussex, Doncaster, Northumberland and Surrey.
In addition to the Lancashire site, fracking permission has been granted on sites in the East Midlands and Yorkshire. So far, fracking in the UK has only been on an “exploratory” basis. But fears are growing that a new swathe of tests could herald the advent of full-scale commercial fracking operations nationwide.
Activist Tina Rothery, a Lancashire-based spokesperson for the campaign group Nanas Against Fracking, told Occupy.com, "The community resistance to fracking over the last five years in the United Kingdom has grown from three groups to over 500. Now we’ve gone from a point where the Green Party was the only political party opposed to fracking, to a point where all the main opposition parties oppose it and the Conservative Party is championing it in isolation.”
Rothery, who has been a key part of the team of people challenging the government’s fracking policy in Lancashire, recalled that “last June, Lancashire County Council stood by us and said no to fracking," and when Cuadrilla decided to appeal the decision, it almost bankrupted the council.
"Unfortunately, at that point the government said, 'We’re going to take this decision off you because it’s too big for Lancashire, and take it to Westminster,’” she added. Rothery now believes a different kind of activism is needed, and expresses hope for achieving change through bolder, direct action protests.
“We’ve exhausted every democratic process available to us – the petitions, the planning objections, the lobbying of MPs, the public meetings. We’ve noticed that Cuadrilla’s stock shares go down after each action; after the action last weekend, they plummeted by 15 percent. Even now, as the government is saying we're overruling democracy, the stocks are still going down.”
At the same time, Rothery despairs at the spread of misinformation that is dissuading many fellow like-minded citizens from protesting. Of particular concern, she said, is the strong influence energy companies now exercise over academics in the Earth Sciences, whose research is used by the government and media. “Instead of reading a stupid report from a university getting funding from the energy sector, we should be speaking to people living near fracking sites across the world,” she said.
The issue resonates strongly with Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow David Smythe. Smythe had what should have been life-long access to Glasgow University’s online academic journals. But his access was suddenly blocked after he wrote a paper criticizing fracking at the beginning of this year.
“I obtained, via a Freedom of Information request, a number of damning emails which showed that this termination of access was directly due to my paper,” Smythe told Occupy.com. “It turns out from these email disclosures that the root of the problem was an opponent of mine at the university, Professor Paul Younger. But it’s not just an issue of one person’s view on fracking versus another person’s view on fracking. It really concerns the wider issue of academic freedom of expression. One of Professor Younger’s emails referred to the fact that certain industrial sponsors were worried about my views.”
Smythe, who is pursuing a case against the university, added: “A so-called internal review at the university determined in retrospect that the termination was justified, but we are now challenging this. The more the university postpones, the more information will emerge about its backroom influences.”
Regarding last week's ruling that allows Cuadrilla to frack in Lancashire, Smythe showed little surprise. "The government did what we expected of them. They don’t believe in localism and won’t allow local people to decide what happens to their area,” he said.
His comments recalled to mind Rothery’s account of last weekend’s demonstration, which saw protestors parading past the house of the landowner who sold out to the frackers. “Every car was beeping in support as we sang, ‘There are many more of us than you!’ and tied yellow ribbons into his prickly hedges. He still hasn’t got them all out,” she said.
Organizing confrontational, yet peaceful, direct actions like this, she added, "means we won’t become criminals, but the frackers might get a few sleepless nights wondering what will happen next."