An industrial truck creeps down the road towards the gate, held up by 35 slowly-walking individuals. It could take up to two hours for the driver to arrive with equipment necessary to keep operations moving at IGas Energy’s Barton Moss fracking site just to the west of Manchester.
‘That happens every day. That’s happening right now, as we speak,’ Robbie Gillet of Frack Free Greater Manchester said in an interview, with sounds of a demonstration audible in the background of the phone call. ‘There is political momentum building, against the government and against the fracking industry.’
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals into the ground to pump out natural gas deposits trapped under shale rock formations.
Setting a precedent
IGas, like over a dozen other drilling companies, has been licensed by the UK government for exploratory natural gas drilling. IGas is not collecting natural gas, but rather the company is testing the area to find where the best well sites could be located.
‘Two-thirds of England is under licence, so what happens here is quite important to how easily the industry is going to be able to operate in the UK,’ Gillet said.
The industry, which has gained momentum and multi-billion dollar investments in the United States, is beginning to see its first corporate investments in the UK. These have been met with anti-fracking protests across the country.
‘I think what’s amazing about the anti-fracking movement, locally, is that lots of residents’ groups are already preparing to resist fracking coming to their area, even if it’s not imminent. They’re already organising and local government is feeling that,’ said Fiona Brooks of Campaign Against Climate Change.
She added that after some county councils agreed to fracking in their area without due research or public comment, they were faced with intense public backlash, and now other councils have declared themselves frack-free to win public support.
‘There is actually a massive void between what local governments and the national government want,’ Brooks said. The national government has provided tax incentives for local governments to accept fracking in their constituencies. County councils can keep 100 per cent of the business taxes from natural gas industry drilling in their region.
Gillet said that citizens, from local communities and the UK as a whole, have not accepted the ‘bribe.’
After this summer’s large-scale Balcombe protests, the company carrying out exploratory drilling in the region – Cuadrilla Resources – admitted that protesters’ opposition unexpectedly slowed down business, reported the Telegraph. Founder Allan Campbell commented that ‘we’re getting smashed’ and he had ‘underestimated the political aspect’ of fracking in Britain ‘by 100 per cent.’
More recently, attention has been focused on the Barton Moss exploratory drilling site. IGas declined an interview and responded with an emailed statement instead.
‘We are assessing the rock formations, the type, depth and permeability to gain a picture of the resource potential,’ read the IGas statement, sent by junior researcher Leah Cope. ‘We will then go away and analyse the data before taking decisions on whether we should move to the next stage of testing for this site.’
The statement continued: ‘Our operations at the site remain on track. We recognise the right to peaceful protest, however our priority is to ensure that there is minimal disruption to local people in the community, and their current approach is in fact causing greater disruption to the lives of the local residents, which we don’t believe is fair.’
Activists have organised local community meetings and set up an anti-fracking camp. ‘Slow-escorts’ and other actions take place daily, along with ‘violent’ interactions with the police, said Gillet.
The Greater Manchester police declined an interview request and preferred to respond in the form of an email statement, written by chief superintendent Mark Roberts.
‘The drilling activity is lawful and taking place on private property,’ the statement read. ‘The road is a private road and the owners of the site have confirmed that protestors are in fact trespassing. That means we have to deal with protestors who are unlawfully occupying the land and refusing to leave.’
The police had made 100 arrests at Barton Moss by mid-February, Gillet said.
‘It is clear there are some protestors who are intent on stopping the drilling activity,’ the police statement read. ‘Our role is to ensure the law is not broken. That includes supporting a peaceful protest but that cannot extend to allowing crimes to be committed.’
‘The police have been very heavy and very violent,’ Gillet said. ‘They just decide that they don’t like someone… and they’ll force them to the ground.’
The police force’s statement defended police actions and noted that officers are held ‘to the highest of standards.’
‘We have had numerous false allegations made in relation to the actions of our officers at Barton Moss Road without any supporting evidence,’ the police statement read. The force noted that protestors, third parties observing on behalf of protestors, and police officers, all film activity in the area, ‘yet so far none of these serious allegations of assault has been substantiated.’
One protestor, Sean O’Donnell of Newcastle, has filed legal complaints against the Greater Manchester police for being ‘battered and bruised’ by officers at the Barton Moss camp this January, reported the Guardian. O’Donnell was charged with wilful obstruction of a highway and resisting arrest, and caught his arrest and assault on video.
Gillet said the police had tried to portray the people in the camp as ‘there to intimidate the local community and aggravate the force, which is not true. People are here to oppose IGas.’
‘The local people are shocked,’ Brooks said, referring to the dramatic change their area is going through with an influx of industry, people and conflict. ‘It’s a real stressful time, so the police are exploiting that by saying: “You know, it’s not the local people opposing this, it’s the people from outside, it’s the professional activists.”’
Gillet described the group at the camp as a ‘mixed bunch,’ with many supporters from the Greater Manchester area as well as from Balcombe, Nottingham, Liverpool and the Occupy protests.
‘Local residents come down during the daytime,’ Gillet said. ‘A point worth making is that, if you’re a local, you’re unlikely to stay in the camp if you’ve got a warm bed five minutes down the road.’
Brooks, who attended the Balcombe anti-fracking camp, said that a camp ‘enables people from all over the UK who care about fracking to come to that area,’ in order to create media attention and unite the movement.
She noted that, particularly with fracking, the people the issue impacts most often have no political activism experience and camps provide support, so locals don’t burn out after months of campaigning.
‘The resistance is both instrumental – we’re trying to cost IGas money – and it is also symbolic, in that people see the protest… and they ask questions: “Why are people opposed to fracking? What are the dangers of digging up more fossil fuels? Of climate change? Of industrialising the countryside? Of water contamination? Of air pollution?”’ Gillet said. ‘The idea of protest is to generate a question.’