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Fracking - the battle of Balcombe and beyond

PUBLISHED: 11:58 22 October 2013 | UPDATED: 11:58 22 October 2013

Protestors line the road in Balcombe

Protestors line the road in Balcombe

Archant

It is arguably the most significant event in the history of Balcombe since the coming of the railway. Having been granted permission to start exploratory drilling for oil, but not hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at Balcombe’s Lower Stumble Farm this summer, Lichfield-based oil and gas firm Cuadrilla immediately began to commence operations.

A group of around 50 environmentalists wasted no time in attempting to block Cuadrilla’s trucks from entering Lower Stumble, and subsequently several arrests were made. To some it appeared as if this would be another futile attempt by ‘eco-warriors’ to prevent fossil fuel development.

But as coverage of the protests grew, an unexpected thing happened. Dozens of villagers unhappy with the prospect of fracking on their doorstep forged an unlikely alliance with the environmentalists and joined in with the protests.

Suddenly, the placards, tents and camper vans of full-time activists lining the B2036 at the drilling site’s entrance were accompanied by the shiny Range Rovers and home-made refreshments of Balcombe residents. The media were quick to recognise the protesters were not merely the usual suspects, and regional and national television and newspapers carried pictures of local children enjoying the summer holidays by protesting against oil drilling in 
their village.

The protests led directly to a debate in the House of Lords on 30 July, asking if the Government had assessed the feasibility of pursuing fracking in the United Kingdom in the face of public resistance. During the debate, Lord Howell of Guildford, a Cabinet minister under Baroness Thatcher and father-in-law of Chancellor George Osborne, made his now infamous suggestion that fracking should be confined to the “desolate” north east of England rather than the “beautiful” south east.

Suddenly, the Battle of Balcombe took on a different meaning – a peer of the realm with close links to the enthusiastically pro-fracking Chancellor had inadvertently warned against the dangers of drilling for oil and gas in Sussex. By Saturday 3 August, more than a week after operations started, the number of protesters had grown to over 300, swelled by around 150 local residents determined to show support.

A good-natured, carnival atmosphere ensued, with several rousing renditions of a specially-modified version of Jerusalem:

“And did they frack in ancient times?/ Poisoning waters; once so clean?/ And were their filthy rigs of doom/ On England’s pleasant pastures seen?/ And did the one true face of truth/ Shine forth upon our clouded hills?/ And do the frackers know time is up/ To build their dark satanic mills?”

The figurehead of the protests is Balcombe resident Charles Metcalfe, a TV wine expert who has formed the No Fracking in Balcombe Society (No Fibs). “The protests have reminded me what a beautiful place Balcombe is and we are lucky enough to live in it,” he says.

“We do not want Balcombe spoiled, desecrated or plundered by Cuadrilla or by our government. From the hills of the ‘desolate’ north-east to the apparently ‘unloved’ county of Lancashire, right the way down to the High Weald, we have to keep England green and pleasant.”

Metcalfe says Cuadrilla is acting against the wishes of Balcombe, pointing to a door-to-door poll conducted by No Fibs showed that 85 per cent of respondents were against fracking, 6 per cent for and 9 per cent undecided. “This high percentage really shows Cuadrilla has absolutely no social licence to frack here in Balcombe.”

Not all residents are supportive of the protests. “Balcombe is a village people pass through and say, ‘Ooh! That’s a nice little village’,” says Jacky Hall. “But now they talk about the protesters and the police and little tents all along the road.”

Although the UK is just one-fortieth its size, Prime Minister David Cameron is keen to emulate the shale gas ‘revolution’ of the United States. The Battle of Balcombe, however, has made this objective more difficult to achieve, compounded not only by the comments by Lord Howell but also those of Energy Minister Michael Fallon, albeit light-hearted, that it will cause ‘shaking walls’ in Sussex.

To start operations in late July, in the early weeks of the summer holidays, may be seen, in hindsight, to have been a major tactical blunder by Cuadrilla. Ultimately, however, the protests have not stopped drilling 
in Balcombe, but Cuadrilla has subsequently been granted a six-month extension to planning permission, to 28 March 2014.

A 78ft rig is now in place to drill a 3,000 feet exploratory well. Cuadrilla says if no oil is found it will simply leave Balcombe. If it is found it will then consider how to extract it, including fracking, for which it would have to apply for a new licence and permits.

As the threat of fracking in the Sussex countryside grows, attention will turn to other parts of the Weald, estimated by the US Energy Information Administration to hold 700 million barrels of oil. 
A report by the British Geological Survey, due next March, is expected to show even larger potential hydrocarbon resources across the Weald Basin beneath Sussex, Surrey and Kent.

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***

Billingshurst next in line?

Billingshurst could be next. London-based Celtique Energie plans to commence exploratory drilling for oil and gas in Broadford Bridge in early 2014; it has also submitted planning application for two further wells in Fernhurst and near Wisborough Green.

The latter sites are located in the South Downs National Park, with Fernhurst resting on a particularly beautiful spot in the valley below Black Down Hill, former home of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Already, more than 130 letters of objection from Fernhurst residents have been sent to park authority planners; while the National Trust, Sussex Wildlife Trust, Campaign for Rural England, South Downs Society, not to mention environmental NGOs have all voiced concern.

Meanwhile, estate agents Hamptons International reports property sales have fallen through in the area due to the prospect of oil and gas exploration. A letter sent to Hamptons’ Haslemere branch, seen by the writer, specifically mentions Celtique Energie’s plans to drill for oil and potentially frack for gas in Fernhurst as the primary reason for withdrawal.

Celtique Energie says it will engage with affected communities to “educate” them about the risks, while the Government promises sweeteners of £100,000 per well in return for the disruption caused. Whether the people of the beautiful county of Sussex will be willing to put George Osborne’s interests before their own and give backing to fracking remains to be seen.

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