Since the start of January, on a busy road just outside Blackpool, a bitter war of attrition has been raging between community activists and the world's most powerful industry, and is yet to reach a climax. On the election campaign trail, anti-frackers have been visible and audible at Corbyn's recent visits to Manchester, Hebden Bridge and Leeds, and the first question asked at the manifesto launch was about the page 21 pledge to ban fracking. The media, however, have edited out all coverage, and the Labour Party decided on a low-key launch by Barry Gardiner in Upton, near Chester, rather than Jeremy Corbyn mentioning fracking at the main manifesto launch.
According to The Independent, the ban on fracking was the main sticking-point in the finalisation of Labour's manifesto. The GMB's lobbying was unsuccessful. Almost all other major trade unions have anti-fracking policies, but the GMB has called for police to get tougher against protestors, and describes Labour's rejection of fracking as “madness”. In fact, it’s fracking itself that is not only insane, but irresponsible, uneconomic and unnecessary.
So why is fracking such a non-story – for both the mainstream media and the Party's own PR? Could it be because fracking is considered a local, rather than a national, issue? It shouldn't be – irreversible pollution of the aquifers which contain our groundwater, any earthquakes, the massive increase in traffic from all over the country destined to transport hazardous substances to and from sites to hopelessly inadequate treatment and disposal sites - all will affect an area much wider than the fracking site itself. Just look at aerial shots pocked with fracking infrastructure stretching hundreds of miles in every direction in Australia and North America, where fracking has been under way for a decade, to see that there will be a massive cumulative impact. Given the necessary scale of a fracking industry – tens of thousands of wells and sites over a 20-year period to make the industry at all economically viable, or ten or more fracking wells per square mile – it will be much harder to stop once exploratory drilling takes place at 100 sites, as planned.
By practically ignoring the spectre of fracking, the Party's campaign machine is missing a trick – a potential vote-winner that goes far beyond the archetypal Labour voter.
Where I live, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where the Tories have a 10,000 majority, we managed to see off potential frackers last September. Our campaign had unanimous support from the Tory-controlled council, and had supporters from every party and none. So Tories allow themselves the nimby card, but our favourite mantra is “no fracking here, no fracking anywhere”.
While the arrival of fracking drills in Lancashire is imminent, a massive swathe of England from the Pennines to the North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire coasts, and most of the north-west including Cheshire and Greater Manchester, the east of the Peak District and Sherwood Forest, is all licensed for fracking. At least two sites, in North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, have received the green light for fracking.
The South isn't safe either – the Somerset coast, most of Dorset, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, West Sussex and the Surrey Hills near Dorking are all licenced for, and in some places planning applied for, either shale gas fracking or oil acidisation. This is not legally classified as fracking, as instead of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals, hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids are injected at high pressure deep into the land to stimulate “tight oil” production. Surrey County Council recently expressed its displeasure at the oil company drilling a new hole without planning permission – there has been no legal comeback. After rejecting a motion from Scottish Labour for an outright fracking ban, the Scottish Government is currently considering lifting its moratorium, with the SNP having meetings with the industry. In Wales, Plaid Cymru omitted any mention of fracking in its manifesto, and plans are still being passed for drilling despite there apparently being a moratorium imposed by the Welsh Assembly.
In Lancashire, several instances of angry company bosses and employees driving vehicles at speed towards blockaders in full view of police and video evidence have resulted in zero charges, let alone convictions. Meanwhile magistrates have thrown the book at protestors accused of obstructing the highway, while numerous planning breaches and road closures necessitated by heavy goods movements and police vans do not apparently merit legal investigation.
The Fylde area of Lancashire is the only place in the UK where fracking has taken place, by Cuadrilla in 2011, and then aborted after there were two earthquakes. The Government imposed a moratorium and then lifted it in 2013.
Lancashire County Council then voted to refuse Cuadrilla's two fracking applications, but last October, soon after May became PM, the Government's Sajid Javid overturned the local democratic decision. So far two costly judicial reviews brought by local anti-frackers have been turned down.
Neighbourhood surveys carried out in fracking or “sacrifice zones” as we anti-frackers call them, generally find 85% of local residents are opposed. The Government's own surveys show 30% opposed, 19% for and the remainder unsure. Those in the zones will have likely been compelled to do research, been urged to simply Google “fracking and health”, or directed towards the 600-plus reports and peer-reviewed scientific studies showing harm assembled by Concerned Health Professionals of New York.
But even those doubting the veracity of international evidence regarding the risks of water, air and land poisoning ought to be concerned at the scale the industry requires to operate. This is why fracking is now banned in Victoria State, Australia, New York, Maryland and Vermont States in the US, as well as curtailment of fracking activities and bans in France, Germany, Bulgaria, Spain, Wales and Scotland -Ireland is also about to certify a complete ban. People should also be offended at the flagrant dismissal of local democracy by the Government and its military-industrial complex. Another nail in the coffin is Barclays’ chairman announcing to shareholders that the bank will be divesting from funding 97% of Third Energy which is all set to frack Ryedale in North Yorkshire.
On a good day, a dozen stalwarts will be blocking the entrance to Cuadrilla's construction site on Preston New Road, locked in pairs and quadruples to metal pipe devices, solid enough to keep police cutting teams busy for the whole of the working day and so preventing deliveries of aggregates or other materials needed to complete the site. On most days though, police and security attain the upper hand, managing to forcibly remove protestors from slowing down lorry convoys.
Work has been slowed down so Cuadrilla is about two months behind schedule in building its frack site, but drone surveys show the site almost ready: arrival of the dreaded drill is imminent.
Solidarity and raising awareness are essential if we are going to beat fracking. It’s also a vote-winner across the north of England, East Midlands, and Tory heartlands of Surrey, Sussex and Dorset. Well done Labour, for being the only party so far to declare it will ban fracking. Now we need to shout it from the rooftops.
is an activist and independent journalist