Fracking Britain

One of the depressingly reassuring aspects of visiting the UK from the USA this past month was the similarity in political landscapes. Admittedly, the UK is not engaged in a poisonous debate on gun rights, and it was a blessed relief that the only firearms I saw during my three-week stay were on the wall of a gallery on the South Bank for an exhibition entitled One Less Gun, and in the holsters of armed police at prime London locations. (The unarmed British bobby is fast becoming an anachronism.) But otherwise, it all seemed oddly familiar. We arrived to find a headline trumpeting the Cameron government’s desire to turn free schools over to for-profit companies, stayed through an ongoing debate on the potential privatization of a National Heath Service that was once one of Britain’s greatest calling cards, and ended our stay listening to the almost unconscionable announcement that not only did the Cameron government welcome the fracking of the British landscape, but that major gas companies should be given large tax breaks on the theory that Britain doesn’t have the same natural gas infrastructure as the United States and therefore sorely needs to catch up.

Police and protesters at a fracking site in Balcombe, West Sussex.

Fortunately, the British public – or at least some of it – is not so easily sold a false promise based on a faulty ideology, as proved by the ongoing demonstrations (and arrests) in Balcombe, West Sussex – where, as I type, protesters are attempting to prevent the gas company Caudrilla from starting the fracking drilling process. Balcombe has the potential to become the 21st Century equivalent of (anti-nuclear protest site) Greenham Common, and such a focal point is needed, because the UK Government’s promises of ‘energy independence’ and ‘clean energy’ – along with the familiar assurances of ‘more jobs and taxes’ – are essentially hollow words aimed partially at what is presumed to be a gullible public, but intended also to assure big business that the rape and destruction of the British landscape is entirely acceptable in the pursuit of big profits. Why else would Tory peer Lord Howell, who just happened to have been an energy advisor under the Thatcher government and just happens to be the father-in-law of the current Chancellor, George Osborne, get up in front of the House of Lords this week and suggest that while…

…There obviously are, in beautiful natural areas, worries about not just the drilling and the fracking, which I think are exaggerated, but about the trucks, and the delivery, and the roads, and the disturbance…

…there are large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part of the north-east where there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence where we could conduct without any kind of threat to the rural environment.”

Presumably Lord Howell thinks that not only is the north-east somehow less sacred than the south-east (damn the inconvenience of Balcombe for being situated in the latter, more prosperous region), but that the people ‘up north’ are too damned stupid to protest about government energy policies. (In which case, the 30th anniversary of the miners strike might serve to jolt his evidently senile memory.) Currently, a Canadian energy company, Rathlin, is engaging in exploratory drilling for oil and gas around Walkington and Berry Burton, picture postcard villages just outside my birthplace of Beverley (in a far from ‘desolate’ part of the ‘north-east). For now, Rathlin has promised the community it has no intention of fracking. But let’s say they do find ‘natural gas’ in the shale deposits of the East Riding. How long will they stick to this assurance? And in other parts of the country, no such promises are being made to begin with.

All of which begs the question: Has nobody in the British government – either on a national or regional level – read the reports of the environmental damage in the USA? The rise in earthquakes in fracking areas? The contaminated water? The domestic house taps set on fire? The vast increases of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere? The devalued properties of landowners who sold out their mining rights to the gas companies? (In the UK, as in many States in the USA, the landowner does not own the mineral rights to the land beneath their property, which both absolves the individual and yet makes their involvement in the decision of what happens under their home that much more important.)

The Josh Fox movie Gasland brought the perils of fracking to public attention. There is now a Gasland 2.

Fortunately, at least for now, I live in New York State, which has become the effective ‘line in the sand’ for American fracking. In particular, after Josh Fox’s movie ‘Gasland’ highlighted the plight of the people in the Delaware Valley in our neighboring Pennsylvania, especially around the town of Dimock, there have been not just regular protests against fracking at the New York State Capital in Albany, and even a movie on the subject entitled Dear Governor Cuomo, but also a well co-ordinated grass roots movement that is attempting to prevent fracking by all means possible – which includes outlawing it on a town-by-town basis. In the Catskills – theoretically saved from fracking as a ‘watershed’ courtesy of a Governor Cuomo edict that some have suggested might be a cynical ploy to ‘buy’ off the naysayers while laying the groundwork for fracking in other parts of the States – the local towns of Woodstock and Olive, among many others, have passed anti-fracking legislation. (Sadly, Shandaken, where I live on the border of, has yet to propose a similar law, but this is the same Town Board that recently passed an absurd pro-Second Amendment resolution opposing all forms of gun legislation whatsoever, so I probably should not be surprised.)

The evidence against fracking is overwhelming, and it is being increasing on a daily basis. [All three of the links later in this paragraph are from July 2013.] A British media that was genuinely concerned about the welfare of its people would trumpet these dangerous reports on the front pages rather than focus on the state of Liam Gallagher’s marriage or the arrival of a royal baby, but that requires you, the public, engaging in a level of discourse that goes against the understandable desires for a comfortable lifestyle and quick-fix solutions. Very few of us actually want to read through reports about underground drilling and its relation to contaminated water, earth tremors and greenhouse gases; fewer still wish to spend days and nights writing letters to legislators, organizing community gatherings, or laying down on a rural road to prevent the large gas companies from having their wicked way with the land on which we are but temporary residents.

The process of fracking. Click on image to learn more.

Still, it must be done. One of my take-aways from our thoroughly enjoyable week in Yorkshire was from the incredible (free) archeological exhibits at the Hull and East Riding Museum in the Museum Quarter. This area of Yorkshire has been constantly inhabited since mankind first walked in Europe, and every group of people has left evidence of its lifestyle behind. Only since the late 19th Century have we been actively excavating it with a view to preserving the evidence and reconstructing and learning from these former ways of life, and I now understand why our recent B&B host in Beverley works with a philanthropist who is trying to buy up as much untilled land in the area as possible, knowing the value of the archeological discoveries that lay beneath the top-soil. The East Riding countryside contains examples of everything from Iron Age villages and burial barrows through to Roman ruins, Anglo-Saxon jewelry and Viking battle souvenirs. The process of fracking casts a brutally uncaring eye on the legacy of our ancestry, and on our own impermanence. It assumes that the land beneath our feet, where our forefathers lived and died, where we plant our seeds for the annual harvest, where we bury our own, and where we will one day return as fertilizer, is ours for the pillage, despite evidence that, contrary to the normal Macchiavellian laws of politics, the end in the case of fracking does not justify the means.

The R.E.M. song ‘Cuyahoga’ from the land-mark 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant, contains the lines:

Underneath the river bed we burned the river down.
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang.

What Michael Stipe sang of an Ohio river named by the Native Americans that became so poisoned by chemical dumping that it spontaneously caught fire holds true in its own way of the water supplies in towns like Dimock. It will hold true of the water supply beneath prosperous Balcombe in Sussex and villages of all stripes in the supposedly ‘desolate’ north-east. Fracking is not worth the risk. Do everything in your power to prevent it.


Further reading on Fracking at:
Frack-Off UK
The Guardian

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November 2021