When George Osborne recently unveiled the world's most generous tax breaks for shale gas extraction in the UK, in a desperate effort to kick start the shale industry here, he might have inadvertently sowed the seed for the largest environmental movement the UK has seen in decades.
He will have watched last week's events in Balcombe with concern, in which local people, anti fracking groups and environmentalists joined together to protest against shale gas company's Cuadrilla plan to drill a test well in a picturesque Sussex village.
The first test drillings for shale gas in the UK took place in 2011 in Blackpool. Following local earthquakes, the government ordered an environmental consultation which was then passed, leading to the resumption of more tests.
The birth of a movement
The UK anti-fracking movement effectively launched on 6th of August 2011, when the coalition group Frack Off unveiled a banner from Blackpool Tower protesting local testing. Several other groups have followed, often local in nature, facilitated with the support of Frack Off and other experienced mobilisers. The movement draws together a wide range different stakeholders, from environmentalists to advocates of the green economy and the large core of local people concerned about water contamination, localised earthquakes, chemical use, pressure on local infrastructure and the impact of local industrial activity on rural villages. It has also been reported that people are struggling to sell their houses in areas near suggested drill sites.
Implications for the Tories
The current protest could have considerable political implications for The Conservatives; Balcombe is in a deeply Conservative constituency, with some locals having voted Conservative their whole lives, and these people are now threatening to switch their vote unless the party changes its stance on fracking. They are also calling for more renewable energy.
In an editorial published on Monday, The Telegraph newspaper stated that the protestors in Balcombe would seemingly happily return the economy to pre industrial times; they should read their own environmental correspondent Louise Gray's report on Balcombe in which she writes:
''Sarah Hirst, 37, a teacher, left with her young children as soon as the protest started.
She said she was scared to take part in protests before but felt so strongly she brought along three young children under seven. She said local people would be showing their anger at the Tories at the next general election. "At the last election I voted Tory but I have gone Green because of this." Mrs Hirst said a wind farm comes down after 25 years, but a faulty well could leak decades afterwards without anyone knowing. "I would happily have a wind farm and happily support it - a lot of people involved would. It is not a blight on the countryside it is renewable energy in the long term," she said.''
In other twisted developments, Lord Howell who also happens to be George Osborne's father in law, has said that fracking should not be going on in the beautiful South of England where people live closely populated, but in the remoter areas of the North East. His comments were quickly condemned resulting in an apology, but he is not doing himself or his party any favors. Anyone who has followed the shale gas debate knows that it is in fact Lancashire in the North West that is estimated to have the biggest shale reserves. But his comments reflect an opinion that several in his party might share, which is that industrialisation should occur in the less afffluent North, away from the more affluent South (where most Conservatives live).
A controversial industry
The shale gas debate is only just starting in the UK; judging by the current protests, the industry's hopes that they could conduct exploratory drilling away from the public eye have been dashed. Instead, communities across the UK worried about fracking are looking at Balcombe in admiration and mobilising anti fracking movements, ready to strike when Cuadrilla or other shale gas companies move into their communities.
Meanwhile, elsewhere the shale gas industry is facing scrutiny; in Poland, which holds the largest shale gas reserves in Europe investors are fleeing despite the government welcoming shale gas. And US filmmaker Josh Fox's Gasland Part 2 has just been released; his first film Gasland kick-started the anti-fracking movement five years ago, and the follow-up will unveil yet more revelations about the dirty business of the shale gas industry. This, coupled with the scale of the mounting protests, must worry stakeholders of the UK shale gas industry.
The largest environmental mobilisation for decades is underway in the UK, due in part to the urgency of climate change but mainly driven by the threat of fracking. Its being directly fueled by by George Osborne's and his allies in opening the door to an fantasy gas future that is far from a safe bet. While George Osborne promises tax breaks for shale gas consumers, energy prices are set to soar once again as we enter the autumn and winter. We should ask ourselves if shale really is necessary to keep our lights on or whether this is another move to make powerful corporations more money whilst the real cost to the consumers and the environment rises.