Brighton and Hove on the road to frack and ruin?

Posted On 29 Aug 2013 at 2:41 pm

The MP for Brighton Pavilion had been due to learn on Tuesday (27 August)) whether she was to be charged with a public order offence after being arrested in Balcombe last week.

Caroline Lucas will have to wait a month longer, as reported on Brighton and Hove News on Tuesday.

She was arrested while taking part in the protests against the fracking company Cuadrilla which is test drilling for oil in the West Sussex village.

She said that she and others like her resorted to non-violent direct action because ministers refused to listen.

The debate about fracking – hydraulic fracturing for gas – has quickly become one of the most divisive in British politics.

Caroline Lucas at Balcombe

Caroline Lucas at Balcombe

The battle lines are not neatly drawn along party political lines although, broadly speaking, the coalition government favours the practice.

The Chancellor George Osborne is even offering tax breaks for fracking. Some of his Conservative and Liberal Democrat colleagues have reservations.

The Greens have been critical. Last autumn Brighton and Hove City Council agreed a motion proposed by Green councillor Alex Phillips that the city should be a “frack-free zone”.

She described fracking as “a risky and unethical practice”. Yet a few years earlier some environmental groups regarded the shale gas extracted by fracking as “an important transition fuel”, according to The Guardian.

Councillor Phillips’s motion was seconded by Councillor Christopher Hawtree, the Green candidate in Hove at the next general election.

It said: “This council notes with concern the effects of unconventional shale gas extraction, namely the case of Blackpool where minor earthquakes followed as a result of drilling in the area.

“This activity has also been linked with the contamination of local water sources such as aquifers, which provide about 30 per cent of the UK’s water. This puts both local communities who rely upon these water supplies and the local environment at risk.

“There are as yet no plans at present to extract gas in this way in Brighton and Hove.

“However, Cuadrilla, an American company, has already gained planning permission to use hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ near by in Balcombe.

“This could have an unquantified detrimental impact on the surrounding area, including our city, and there are fears that any subsequent earth tremors could be a threat to the crucial London to Brighton railway route.

“Fracking uses massive volumes of water, a million gallons for each frack, which is also of great concern in a region only recently taken out of drought conditions.

“Methane gas produced at drilling sites is a significant contributor to climate change – far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“This council also notes that the production of hard-to-reach fossil fuels is incompatible with efforts to achieve statutory UK carbon targets.

“A focus on gas extraction detracts from and delays investment in renewable energy sources.”

The motion called for Britain to follow France in banning fracking until a full independent environmental impact assessment has been carried out.

But supporters of fracking have urged them to see how common the process has become in America. And they say that it has many other advantages.

Besides, Cuadrilla said that no fracking could take place at Balcombe with a proper assessment of the environmental impact.

The key arguments in favour are mostly economic. It provides cheap gas and ensures that Britain has a secure supply of energy.

Supporters of fracking say that it is a clean and safe way of making good use of natural resources.

It will create thousands of jobs, bring about better infrastructure, in particular, better roads for rural communities.

And the energy companies will contribute financially to the local communities where fracking takes place.

As crude oil prices rise again, the cost will be felt most by the poorest when it comes to paying the heating bills next winter.

Many drivers will also notice the higher prices at the petrol or diesel pumps. A growing dependence on fuel imports affects the price we pay and raises questions about the security of fuel supplies.

We are increasingly reliant on the likes of Russia or countries in the Middle East.

The political volatility in some oil and gas-producing nations only adds to concerns about the security of supply.

Shale gas will give us the sort of independence in this area that the North Sea oil and gas provided. The US has already benefited in this respect, say the supporters of fracking.

The protests in Balcombe have also served to polarise opinions.

The MP for Hove Mike Weatherley riled some and spoke for others when he complained about lifestyle protesters setting up camp there.

He said that professional protesters, who relished altercations with the authorities, were obscuring the legitimate concerns of local residents.

Mr Weatherley pointed out the high cost of policing the protests. Sussex Police said that it had topped £2.3 million and could reach £3.7 million.

The Conservative MP said that he opposed to building new nuclear power stations but wanted a legitimate debate to take place about how we could keep the lights on in the future.

He said that he appreciated that local residents had concerns but he wanted an open debate based on tangible evidence, not one tarnished by reports of fighting with police.

He added: “Professional protesters from all walks of life have latched on to the anti-fracking cause without really assessing the evidence and have been exploiting local residents’ fears by perpetuating myths about the drilling.

“I fully support Sussex Police as they protect the exploratory site in Balcombe. Democracy, not criminal antics, must be allowed to take precedence.

“I personally would choose fracking over nuclear power but am keen to hear all of the arguments for and against the practice.

“I have actually been contacted by several constituents about fracking who have been strongly in support of it, simply because professional protesters are against it.

“The serial protesters are poisoning the debate. We need to hear all views if we are to take a mature decision.”

Caroline Lucas was one of more than a dozen people from Brighton and Hove to have been arrested during the protest in Balcombe.

She told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 last week that she had not gone along intending to be arrested.

She said: “I’ve been campaigning against fracking and doing everything I can to combat climate change all of my political life.

“As with all new technologies, there are a lot of fears and perhaps some exaggeration.

“I certainly don’t accept every single thing that people say about fracking but I think the reason that there are so many concerns is because it still doesn’t feel as if we have had a very honest debate about this.

“I think people are still very, very suspicious of a government, for example, who will claim it is going to lead to lower prices.

“And yet the evidence we have seen from people like Ofgem and Deutsche Bank is that because the gas markets and geology are so very different in the EU from the US there’s no real reason to expect those lower prices to happen here.”

She said on her website: “Along with everyone else who took action, I’m trying to stop a process which could cause enormous damage for decades to come.

“The evidence is clear that fracking undermines efforts to tackle the climate crisis and poses potential risks to the local environment.

“People today, myself included, took peaceful non-violent direct action only after exhausting every other means of protest available to us.

“I’m in the privileged position of being able to put questions to the government directly and arrange debates in Parliament but still ministers have refused to listen.

“Despite the opposition to fracking being abundantly clear, the government has completely ignored the views of those they are supposed to represent.

“When the democratic deficit is so enormous, people are left with very little option but to take peaceful, non-violent direct action.”

One former Conservative Energy Minister, Charles Hendry, widely regarded as an expert on the topic, has also voiced scepticism about fracking and criticism of Cuadrilla.

He described the pursuit of shale gas as a costly gamble, adding: “Betting the farm on shale brings serious risks of future price rises.”

Shale gas will certainly provide fuel for one thing in the coming months – a sustained debate about where our energy comes from and how much we are prepared to pay for it.


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