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Lancashire fracking go-ahead prompts UK-wide opposition

Direct action against the industry set to escalate.

Image: Frack Off

After years of being pushed back by community efforts to oppose fracking, the extreme energy industry is pressing ahead with plans to extract unconventional fossil fuels across the UK. In Yorkshire, Third Energy were given the go ahead in May to frack at Kirby Misperton, although local campaign group Frack Free Ryedale and Friends of the Earth have stalled the process by forcing a judicial review. This week’s decision to approve fracking at Preston New Road in Lancashire, by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, came as no surprise to the anti-fracking movement. A decision on a second site at Roseacre Wood was deferred and may still go ahead. With petitions, marches and legal appeals almost exhausted, we can expect to see an escalation in direct action tactics to stop the shale gas industry in its tracks.

Many other petroleum exploration development licences (PEDLs) have been allocated, with around 13,000 square miles of the country earmarked for potential fracking and some exploratory wells already drilled. Other threatened areas include Surrey, Sussex, Cheshire, Somerset and Lincolnshire. Scotland and Wales have imposed moratoriums and Northern Ireland banned fracking last year.

At its recent party conference, the Labour party announced it would ban fracking if it came to power, taking the same position as the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. Although political opposition is increasing, the Conservative government is moving in the wrong direction, with huge subsidies and generous tax breaks offered to the oil and gas industry, while support for renewables is scrapped. David Cameron said his government was going “all out for shale” and during his time as prime minister, changes were made to the legal planning process to facilitate fracking. Theresa May has sought to grease the wheels by offering households cash payments of up to £10,000 from the tax revenues that fracking could generate. Kickstarting fracking is senseless, when we have cleaner, more viable long-term alternatives such as wind, solar and tidal energy. UK residents have seen what has unfolded in America and Australia and want to prevent this destructive industry from taking hold here.

Fracking pollutes the air and water and has caused serious health issues for people and livestock. The industrialisation of rural environments, increased traffic and noise can be very disruptive. There is also the danger of earthquakes. Tremors at Preese Hall in Lancashire, in 2011, resulted in a temporary moratorium on fracking in the UK.

Unconventional gas exploration has serious consequences for the planet’s climate and all fossil fuels need to kept in the ground to prevent runaway climate change. The UK needs to decarbonise in order to meet its EU targets and commitments reached at last December’s COP21 Paris summit. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and when emissions from methane leakage are taken into account, fracked gas has a carbon footprint comparable with coal. A recent Oil Change International report outlines the scale of the challenge facing the planet. Burning all the coal, oil and gas currently in production or development is extremely likely to take global temperature rises beyond two degrees centigrade. In order to meet the 2C target, we can only use 85% of current reserves. To meet the 1.5C target that the Paris agreement referenced, we can only burn 37%. Opening up new fronts of fossil fuel extraction is simply untenable.

When conventional activist approaches have failed to stop fracking, non-violent direct action is seen as the last chance. Direct action has become necessary because our current government has failed us. It’s up to us to oppose fracking, wherever the industry attempts to impose itself. It will be crucial to prevent the industry gaining a foothold, as one fracking well will inevitably lead to many, many more. People will need to mobilise and work in solidarity with local groups, at whichever site or sites go live first.

Direct action requires the open defiance of existing laws and restrictions. When facing unjust power it means acting freely, as if the state does not exist. It’s being the change you want to see and attempting to build a new system within the shell of the old. There will be plenty of roles within this culture of resistance – those who cook, or offer legal support are as important as those risking arrest.

Previous direct actions that have been effective in resisting fracking include protector camps to occupy threatened locations, blockades, locking on to machinery and any attempt to slow down or impede progress. A rolling blockade or occupation, aims for a constant rotation of new people into and out of the action every few days. Participants would be offered training, take action and be given post-action support if necessary. This tactic aims to scale down the individual level of commitment, hopefully encouraging more people to take action. Research has shown, that when large numbers of people pledge to take action, it helps legitimise the action socially, resulting in more volunteers and a lower individual risk of arrest. Such a rolling blockade was successfully used by the Australian environmental movement to stop construction of the Franklin Dam in Tasmania in the 1980s.

It’s clear the environmental movement is up against some very powerful interests but people power is effective when sufficient numbers are mobilised. Direct action protests at Balcombe, in the summer of 2013, brought the issue of hydraulic fracturing into the mainstream and were instrumental in Cuadrilla’s decision to suspend operations at the site.

In Australia, the successful ‘Bentley Blockade’ of 2014, which mobilised against fracking company Metgasco, is proof that strength in numbers really works. Hundreds of people camped out each night and formed physical barriers to prevent heavy machinery from entering. As the protest escalated, numbers at the protector camp swelled to around 2,000. The blockade lasted for almost three months and was notable, in that an entire region stood up en masse to take part in mass civil disobedience.

Post Paris, increasing numbers are willing to take part in mass civil disobedience to resist the fossil fuel industry. In May the global Break Free campaign mobilised activists across six continents in a two week wave of escalating actions. Reclaim the Power teamed up with United Valleys Action Group to shut down the UKs largest opencast coal mine at Ffos-y-Fran and thousands descended on a vast lignite coal mine in Lusatia, Germany, stopping operations for a weekend. Both actions were notable for a safety in numbers with no arrests in Wales and minimal arrests in Germany, where police reported they were overwhelmed.

In five years of protests against fracking, several flashpoints across England have resulted in arrests, however, including protests at Balcombe, Horse Hill, Barton Moss, Crawberry Hill and Upton. Some arrests have yielded convictions, whilst many were thrown out of court – but none of the environmental defenders have been jailed.

With anti-fracking struggles taking shape on multiple fronts, grassroots action network Reclaim the Power are calling for people to step up to take non-violent direct action in support of local communities and to protect the climate, water, air and countryside for future generations.

In order to mobilise resistance to the fracking industry, we will be running our Keeping It In The Ground Direct Action Mobiliser Tour from 10-20th October. With events in Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Preston, Sheffield, Ellesmere Port and Lancaster, we’ll be teaming up with local frack free groups and discussing strategies to resist the extreme energy industry and fight for climate justice. Visit reclaimthepower.org.uk for more details.

Finally, Stop Barclays Fracking week (24-29th October) will highlight the company’s ownership of Third Energy, who are planning to frack in Ryedale, Yorkshire. Nationwide protests will be aim to shame Barclays and encourage people to move their money to greener, more ethical alternatives.

The shale gas companies have not only been prospecting for hydro-carbons under the soil, they have also been testing public opinion. Through widespread civil disobedience, we will make it loud and clear that the fracking industry has no social licence to operate; not in Lancashire, not in Yorskshire, not anywhere.

About the author

Al Williams is an activist with Reclaim the Power.


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