UK Communities Are Standing Up to the Country’s Nascent Shale Gas Industry

Activists hold strong amid recent wins by fracking interests

The Ryedale region of Northern England is one of immense natural beauty. Its rolling hills and sublime moors are dotted with picturesque villages that are laced with thousands of years of proud, rich history that is palpably felt to this day. However, the region’s tranquillity has been rocked in recent months by a grave threat. The area is one of two in the UK that has been given the green light in the last year for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, despite local opposition. Fortunately, the decision is not yet final, and in the face of corporate behemoths, a number of grassroots campaigns are capturing the UK public’s imagination and support.  

photo of anti-fracking demonstration UKphoto by Victoria Buchan-Dyer Organizers protest fracking in Lancashire. Public support for fracking in the UK is declining.

Public interest in fracking intensified massively in the United Kingdom in 2007 when Cuadrilla Resources, a UK energy company, was granted a license for shale gas explorations. Cuadrilla’s first and only fracking job took place in March, 2011 near the town of Blackpool, but the operation was quickly halted due to seismic activity felt in the area after the drilling. Two small earthquakes — which have since been confirmed to have been directly caused by the fracking by a study commissioned by Cuadrilla itself — were detected in the region around the drilling site.

The earthquakes put a damper on the budding industry, one that members of the UK government seem keen to overcome. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said that the country would go “all out” for shale gas. George Osborne, a longtime member of parliament, urged politicians to fast-track fracking measures in an internal letter last year, which was leaked in January. In December 2015, the UK government awarded rights to energy companies to explore potential fracking sites in 159 onshore blocks across England with the aim to begin the drilling process in many areas by the end of 2016. And just last month, the UK government overturned a local decision by the Lancashire county council to reject a proposal for four fracking wells in the region. Drilling may begin next year.

In the face of the politicians’ obstinate stance on the issue, huge numbers of British people are standing together in defiance of the proposed drillings. In October, the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy reported that public support for fracking had fallen to 17 percent from an all-time high of just 26 percent in 2014. Dozens of local anti-fracking campaigns have been launched across the UK, united together through a common network, Frack Off, and supported by major international environmental groups including Greenpeace and The Climate Coalition. 

Residents of Ryedale formed their own local anti-fracking campaign — Frack Free Ryedale — in July 2014, and locals have been protesting en masse against drilling company Third Energy’s plans to begin work on a number of sites in the area. Campaigners are particularly worried about the devastating impact fracking could have on the environment and wildlife. And yet, despite more than 1,000 people attending an anti-fracking rally in the area, and nearly 4,000 letters of objection received by the local council, fracking plans were approved in May.   

Members of Frack Free Ryedale and Friends of the Earth quickly sought judicial review of the decision. A decision is expected this month.  

photo of possible fracking site in RyeDalephoto by petelovespurple, Flickr One of the proposed fracking sites in Ryedale. Frack Free Ryedale has been fighting shale gas exploration in the region.

The prospect of fracking has galvanized the community and politicized individuals within the Ryedale area. Sarah Houlston, for instance — whose family owns a farm just one mile from a planned fracking site called KM8 — was motivated to run for chair of the parish council last year in an attempt to fight against the fracking decision. Houlston won, and now the mother of two young children is continuing to campaign and voice her opposition to the drilling. She believes that the impact of fracking will be felt for years to come. “My children will be fifth generation workers on this land,” she said. “But I’m worried about the legacy we’d be leaving behind if fracking goes ahead. The disruption to the land will mean that farming simply won’t be possible.” 

Indeed, US-based research suggests that farmland near drilling sites can be negatively affected due to a degradation of soil quality and watershed resilience. The fracking process — which sees water, sand, and toxic chemicals pumped through wells under intense pressure to fracture the rock and release gas — has also been linked to toxic groundwater contamination, air and noise pollution, and earthquakes. In areas of the US, Canada, and Australia, where fracking has been intensely employed, there have been hundreds of reported cases of air pollution and contamination of drinking water due to the high-pressurized nature of the drilling. 

Sue Gough is another Ryedale local who’s been politicized by the fracking plans. Her family home is less than a mile from the KM8 site and she felt compelled to set up another local anti-fracking group, Frack Free Kirby Misperton, two years ago. Along with environmental concerns and the worry about how fracking will affect future generations, Gough’s amazed at the government’s decision to push through fracking despite public opposition and the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects it can have.

In a struggle between a billion dollar industry and the livelihoods and legacies of many, the stakes couldn’t be higher. As Frack Free Ryedale says on its website, “We are lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. We have a duty to protect this beautiful area and pass it on to our children undamaged.” Advocates also fear that the decision to allow fracking in Ryedale or elsewhere will prompt other regions to give the destructive process the green light too.

Though the outcome in Ryedale remains uncertain, one thing is clear: The fight is far from over, and the anti-fracking groups will continue their opposition until the very last.  

To learn more about the Frack Off campaign, please visit the Frack Off website.   

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