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New gas drilling sparks fracking showdown in the UK

By Martin Watters - Equal Times, October 26, 2016

A showdown looms over fracking in the UK after a landmark ruling opened the door to the first drilling in five years.

Controversial shale gas projects at several sites in the north of England have received government support, sparking protests from communities, activists and workers.

Earlier this month, the UK government overruled a local council’s decision to block oil and gas company Cuadrilla Resources from test drilling in Lancashire.

Opponents of the controversial practice – whereby shale gas is extracted by pumping chemical-filled liquids deep underground using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – said it could result in water contamination and a higher risk of workplace injuries and deaths from accidents and explosions.

Fracking across England was suspended in 2011 after Cuadrilla admitted its drilling activities at a site near Blackpool caused minor earthquakes. The moratorium was lifted in 2012, but since then many drilling applications have been rejected by local councillors or delayed by legal appeals. Moratoria remain in Scotland and Wales, while fracking is banned in Northern Ireland.

The decision by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to overrule Lancashire council will allow Cuadrilla to drill the first horizontal wells in Britain, despite more than 18,000 objections from local people.

Echoing the former prime minister David Cameron, who said that the government was “going all out for shale”, Javid pledged: “We will take the big decisions that matter to the future of our country as we build an economy that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.”

Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan sent a strong message to other shale gas companies struggling to convince communities and local councils.

“No doubt other people will be putting forward planning applications and this does demonstrate that they can and should be approved,” Egan said.

A week after the UK’s Labour Party vowed to ban all fracking if it came to power, the Shadow Minister for Energy Barry Gardiner said the decision “bulldozed” community wishes and risked locking Britain into old-fashioned fossil fuel energy.

“Cuadrilla’s own figures on jobs show they would be very temporary, and their claims that fracking will lower British energy bills have been discredited,” Gardiner said in a press statement.

Thousands of community objections were also swept aside earlier this year in May when North Yorkshire council approved fracking near Ryedale by the UK firm Third Energy.

Ninety-seven per cent of the fracking company is owned by multinational banking giant Barclays and this week activists are organising a series of protests targeting the bank for its involvement in fracking.

Meanwhile, the multinational petrochemical giant Ineos is planning 30 new drilling projects in the next 12 months with five mooted before Christmas. Ineos has faced criticism for planning to dump fracking wastewater in the sea and banning morning tea breaks for workers at its Scottish plant.

With more fracking on the horizon – and further petitions, marches and legal appeals almost exhausted – environmental protestors across the UK are calling for an “escalation in direct action tactics”.

Al Williams of the climate justice activist group Reclaim the Power said people may have to put their bodies on the line to stop the drilling.

“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.”

The government’s U-turn to allow fracking under Britain’s national parks has helped to galvanise protestor resolve, as has Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to give cash payments to locals affected by fracking – a move effectively amounting to “bribery”, according to Friends of the Earth UK.

Westminster’s fracking support has also raised concerns from transparency watchdog Spinwatch about the influence of industry lobbyists and the “revolving door” between government departments and extractive companies.

A workers’ perspective

In approving drilling in Lancashire, the government claimed fracking would create 64,000 jobs. Yet this figure is at odds with the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates of 32,000 – a figure backed by the government’s own consultants.

As well as the TUC, some of the UK’s largest unions – Unite, Unison, the Public & Commercial Services Union – all oppose fracking or support a moratorium on it. Unsurprisingly, the union representing gas workers, GMB, supports industry expansion.

GMB National Officer Stuart Fegan cited energy security and independence from foreign regimes “fronted by henchmen, hangmen and head choppers” as reason to support further drilling.

Equal Times spoke to Professor Sean Sweeney, coordinator of the US-based Trade Unions for Energy Democracy initiative, who has witnessed the effects of the fracking boom on communities in America’s eastern states.

“I’m from the UK originally and the thought of fracking in England is quite terrifying,” he said. “Pennsylvania has one-fifth of the population density of Lancashire and the idea that you can have high-volume fracking there sounds alarm bells.”

Prof Sweeney said that in opposing extractive projects in their communities, grassroots campaigners were now making the connection between local disruption to the wider climate debate – as seen in the current Dakota Access Pipeline stand-off in the US.

“What’s happening everywhere now is that as unconventional energy projects touch more people and lead to more major social conflicts, it’s really becoming a which-side-are-you-on moment.”

“But aside from the worker fatalities and accidents, traffic disruption, water contamination risks, night-time flaring and seismological effects, energy from shale gas is simply not consistent with the UK’s Paris climate targets.”

Professor Sweeney said fracking has been promoted as a cleaner alternative in the transition from coal. But he said research now shows the US gas boom – and the fact that methane from gas emissions traps 86 times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period – would be worse than coal for greenhouse emissions during the transition.

“Gas industry efficiency has got better but because of the sheer volume of gas drilling, what we have now is a global methane emergency,” he said.

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