At some point during June 2013 – no-one knows exactly when – the quiet and beautiful West Sussex village of Balcombe will become the first major battleground of Britain’s shale rush. Lord Browne, the chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, has said he’ll do ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure the success of plans to prove the viability of fracking gas and oil in Britain, a crusade mired in controversy since it began. Balcombe, where preparatory work for a 914 metre well has already been completed, is next in line.
Unluckily for Browne, he’s not the only one using fighting talk. Balcombe residents are fiercely opposed to a well pad on their doorstep. Networking with activists nationally and internationally, they’ve adopted tactics from the highly effective ‘Lock the Gate’ campaigns in Australia, where communities determined to protect their lands from environmental catastrophe have gas companies running scared. Three companies have withdrawn from New South Wales this year to date.
A key tactic is surveying the locality to get the opinion of residents: ‘We’re using the “frack free community strategy,”’ says local campaigner Anna Dart, who grew up in Balcombe. The results of their survey so far show that the small community of less than 2,000 is ‘nearly unanimous’ in its opposition to the Cuadrilla project. In Australia this method has been far from symbolic, with the communities going on to get organized and to resist the invasion.
‘If a gas company does come and frack, it shows that firstly there is absolutely no social licence to do it, and shows the complete failure of any supposed democracy,’ Dart explains. ‘Also, the bottom line of the strategy is that when certain people decide to take peaceful direct action, the whole community is united with those taking the action. It’s a united community defending itself.’
Licences for unconventional gas extraction have been sold off in blocks in a wide swathe of countryside, which sits between the North and South Downs. The stakes in Balcombe are high for both camps. The village’s role as the first target for the proliferation of gas drilling across the Weald area makes it crucial – for both fracking companies and those determined to stop them.
Cuadrilla’s holding company AJ Lucas declared in a stakeholder statement in May 2012 that they have 23,067 hectares in Sussex as assets for exploratory drilling. Meanwhile rival company Celtique Energy are boasting that there’s 10 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Weald basin – an amount which, based on the average shale gas well production, would entail the drilling of over 6,000 wells. Should the gas industry get its way, the Weald area will undergo wholesale industrialization with well pads, pipelines, compressor stations and processing plants littering the landscape.
The Balcombe site’s geographical location means any leakages or pollution could have disastrous effects. It’s less than a mile from the River Ouse and reservoirs, both of which provide drinking water for tens of thousands of homes. Pollution of water sources is both a likely and frightening prospect, based on the experience of the US, Canada and Australia. It’s also surrounded by the Lower Stumble Woods, a home for numerous protected species.
For now, villagers are cracking on with planning their resistance. The anti-fracking signs, being prepared for display in neighbourly unity outside Balcombe households, mirror those found across rural Australian communities. They’re emblematic of an emerging social movement against unconventional gas which spans from the super-local to the global. ‘Everyone’s starting to talk with each other across the world about this, which is really exciting, it’s crossing political boundaries,’ says Dart. ‘I suppose that’s the silver lining of this really horrible cloud.’
For more information on extreme energy go to the Frack Off website.