Image: Carnival for a frack-free future. Rights: Reclaim the Power.
Two weeks ago, five grandparents from Bristol chained themselves together inside the Department for Business, Energy, Industrial Strategy to demand an end to fracking in the UK. These elderly citizens felt the democratic system had failed them, leaving them no choice but direct action as they attempt to leave a safe planet for their grandchildren. This week, hundreds will gather at a mass protest camp at the UK’s flagship fracking site in Lancashire. It’s clear the fight over fracking, and democracy, in the UK is intensifying once again.
Fracking: an industry we don’t need
The arguments against fracking - an extreme form of dirty energy extraction - are clear. It pollutes the air, risks contamination of groundwater supplies, and could harm children’s brain development. Not to mention earthquakes, as we saw in 2011. Beyond local effects, we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground if we’re to avoid irreversible climate change. Experts warn that should emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature goals set in Paris become almost unattainable. This makes a brand new fossil fuel industry which would carry on polluting for decades unacceptable. 2020 is also the year that renewables are set to be cheaper than fossil fuels in the UK, as the economics turn against fracking.
So in theory, also in practice. Over the past few years, the wheels seem to have been slowly falling off for the fracking industry. Political support had been waning. In 2016 the Labour party promised to ban fracking if it takes power, leaving only the Conservatives to carry forward the fracking agenda. Then even they seemed to be quietly dropping their support. In November of last year, a Conservative MP responsible for developing the party’s energy policy admitted the case for fracking had been weakened by the boom in renewables, and fracking was a glaring omission from the new Clean Growth Strategy in October 2017.
The industry itself has also been suffering. Following the Carillion scandal, fracking company Third Energy, whose Chairman used to be Carillion’s Chief Executive, was forced to withdraw equipment from its Kirby Misperton exploration site in North Yorkshire in February, pending an assessment of financial resilience ordered by the government. At Preston New Road, the UK fracking industry’s flagship site, company Cuadrilla admitted recently to being more than a year behind schedule in the face of a sustained campaign of opposition by the local community.
The fight against fracking is back on
But now the fight looks to be back on. The government last month announced plans to take fracking decisions out of the hands of local authorities and allow drilling to take place without planning applications. In an echo of 2016, when it overturned an earlier Lancashire County Council decision to reject Cuadrilla’s fracking application at Preston New Road, the government is centralising decision-making over the energy system in order to bypass widespread opposition to fracking. The majority of councils are now rejecting planning permission, and latest government statistics show that only 18% of the public support fracking, compared to 85% for renewables. As the years go by with investors unwilling to extend finance and companies pulling out, the frackers are again becoming more desperate and belligerent, with petrochemical giant INEOS’ appeal against the Scottish government’s ban on fracking rejected last week.
Faced with this renewed attack on local democracy and slide towards climate crisis, communities are responding. Three years to the day of that Lancashire County Council ruling, as Cuadrilla await final permission from Minister Greg Clark to commence what would be the first commercial fracking in the UK since 2011, hundreds will gather for “Block Around The Clock”, a protest camp and festival of resistance at Preston New Road. This will mark the climax of the three-month ‘United Resistance’ campaign organised by local anti-fracking groups in Lancashire. Women have been leading the movement, with regular women’s marches at the Preston New Road site.
The movement now extends beyond the North-West, with eleven live planning sites across the UK, from drilling planned in Nottinghamshire, to flow testing in West Sussex to preparing for production in Surrey. Only last week the Tour de Frack saw hundreds participate in a cycling ride around key sites of extreme energy extraction in the South-East, as the oil and gas industry threatens even the Tory heartlands of the South.
The environmental crisis requires political not consumerist solutions
Over recent months, the UK public seems to be shaking itself from its collective amnesia around the environmental crisis around us, fuelled in part by the popularity of David Attenborough’s latest ‘Blue Planet’ series. Currently this is narrowly channelled towards plastic pollution, with the supposed ‘solutions’ offered limited to ethical consumerism and corporate social responsibility.
Reclaim the Power’s analysis is that collective problems require collective responses. If we are to address ecological and social crisis, from climate change’s effects - largely borne by the Global South - to the disappearance of Britain’s wildlife, we need to come together to demand political change, and an energy system that delivers sustainable employment for communities while recognising that the economy is embedded within and depends upon nature’s life-giving systems. That starts with seeing off the fracking industry in the UK, and defending local democracy this summer.