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The curious tale of the Frack Master and the activist

United States
Fracking debaters

© Jamie Kelsey-Fry

The main ground floor hall in London’s Barbican Centre fills with the sound of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. The crowd of mainly suited men clears to make a ring in the centre, and a master of ceremonies, in a two-tone purple suit, steps forward with a microphone to introduce the event. Is cockfighting on the return? Has bare-knuckle pugilism become a chic new art form? Well, it’s a blood sport of sorts, with a similar visceral thrill ringing round the audience, but the bones that are about to be broken are financial bones, those of shareholders and buccaneers on the high seas of quick profit as well as, perhaps, a few fractures in a voluminous ego.

We are guests at the $1,500-a-ticket Energy Live News conference titled ‘Politics of Power’, and the two contestants in this ‘Frack Off’ head-to-head debate are Chris Faulkner, CEO of major US fracking company Breitling Energy, who likes to be known as ‘The Frack Master’, and Ewa Jasiewicz, journalist and activist from No Dash For Gas and Fuel Poverty Action.

Round One: Jasiewicz gets in a first array of sparring jabs by stating that fracking is a dying industry, that it is slowly being rejected across the US with successful lawsuits, that only the day before, the birthplace of modern hydraulic fracturing (Denton, Texas) voted to ban fracking despite a $700,000 lobbying campaign, and that unconventional fracking for shale gas and oil sees a 60-per-cent reduction in yields within the first year: ‘This is not a profitable industry, this is not an economically viable industry and in terms of a social licence to operate, that doesn’t exist in the US and trust me, there is none at all in the UK.’

Faulkner fights back by stating that the ban in Denton was not about fracking but ‘about setbacks drilling near folks’ homes’. He follows with another swipe that ‘folks like Ewa did a great job going to Denton and scaring folks up there… environmentalists create the bogeyman by scaring folks with misinformation.’

Jasiewicz has pulled the Frack Master in and, when he’s not expecting it, delivers an uppercut that sends him reeling: ‘Interesting that you accuse me of being misleading given that the Advertising Standards Authority ruled this August that your letter in the Telegraph was very alarmist, used all manner of scare tactics about the UK running out of gas imminently… and found that you made exaggerated and misleading statements.’ This is not unusual for fracking companies.

The bear of a man staggers briefly away from Jasiewicz and takes to speaking over her in boorish retort. And the battle goes on in much the same way, with Faulkner never really finding his feet and becoming more and more flustered. Yes, he parries many attacks with statistics, ones everyone in the room are familiar with, illustrating how US industry is currently benefiting from a reduction in prices, how jobs are created by fracking and how fracking for shale gas can reduce carbon emissions. But with each lumbering swing from Faulkner, Jasiewicz gets in fast with sharp blows such as ‘this is not a bridging fuel, the bridge is on fire’, ‘there are no jobs on a dead planet, there’s no business on a dead planet’ and ‘even the industry has said that fracking won’t bring down energy prices in the UK’. She fights back with a future of community-owned renewables, clean energy, hundreds of thousands of green jobs and a genuine energy independence and security. Including independence from the kinds of companies with representatives in the room.  

Round Two: A few times, Jasiewicz makes the room shudder with realities that nobody here wants to hear and which Faulkner can only bluster over. She underlines the practice whereby energy companies are able to second people into energy policy-making departments in government and actually ‘take part in writing energy legislation’. How many in the room are not party to that practice? Jasiewicz refers to the Big Six energy companies in Britain (all of which have representatives in the room) enjoying massive profits despite being responsible for continuing price hikes that force people to choose between eating or heating, and which can arguably be held responsible for the 10,000 deaths each winter caused by fuel poverty. When a member of the audience who works with families who suffer fuel poverty later describes what utter suffering and distress this causes to families, a spontaneous applause breaks out in the audience in support. Perhaps for a moment, there is a connection between what the audience does for a living and what the actual human consequences of that work can be.

Round Three: Faulkner claims that a zero-carbon Britain would never happen, but his opponent counters immediately with recent statistics showing that, despite a desperate paucity of political weight behind it, the renewables industry has been making enormous leaps in efficiency and output: ‘We are working with political obstacles, not technical obstacles.’ She rounds that off with the glaring shift at the top of the energy food chain marked by the Rockefeller Foundation divesting entirely from the fossil-fuel industry.

When it comes to a vote at the end of the battle, 5 people put up their hands to say they still think fracking should go ahead and become our main energy policy whereas 12 put up their hands saying it shouldn’t and 16 say that it should be part of the mix. This is in a room full of people working in the energy industry.

Faulkner came to the event with his own PR manager. He has a good script, it’s his job to travel around and do this, and he even runs his own TV station in the US. It’s easy to make the idea of fracking seem appealing and, with the weight of enormous PR investments, gold-plated. But the whole spectacle unravels once one thread is pulled.

Now you know why, despite constant effort from groups like Talk Fracking and the more than 150 community groups around the country, the British government and UK industry are very reluctant to enter into open debate that is free for the public to come and witness. There is no social licence in this country for fracking; nobody voted for fracking. As the number of people looking into fracking for themselves grows, so will the public’s feeling of being lied to. The threats far outweigh any positives, yet all we are being presented with are the ‘potential benefits’ with a PR and lobbying blitzkrieg shutting down talk of potential threats. 

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