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Fracked off

UK protests are more about fears over the future of renewable energy than unconventionals

The picturesque village of Balcombe in Sussex, southeast England, has become a focal point for the UK's debate on hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The No Dash for Gas campaign group set up camp outside the entrance to Cuadrilla Resources' site in Balcombe on 16 August for a five-day anti-fracking protest. Some campaigners and a number of local residents who are not associated with the group have also been at the site since the end of July and plan to remain there for the foreseeable future.

Cuadrilla wants to start conventional oil exploration at the site, but protesters fear the company could eventually frack for unconventional resources.

On 19 August, however, clashes broke out between anti-fracking campaigners and police, drafted in to secure the drilling site. The fracas led to about 30 arrests - including Caroline Lucas, a Green party member of parliament - for public order offences. No Dash for Gas lodged a formal complaint against West Sussex police for "heavy-handed and disproportionate policing", claiming officers had used unnecessary violence to restrain some protesters.

However, when I visited the Balcombe protest site on 20 August, there was no sign of the violence and chaos which had dominated media coverage of the previous day's events.

What I saw was a group of pro-renewable energy campaigners quietly protesting against fracking. They were passionate in their belief that fracking could lead to the contamination of some of the UK's water supply and would detract investment from renewable energy.

The camp itself was well organised with portable toilets, kitchen facilities and local shops a short walk away. The atmosphere was relaxed, not dissimilar to a sunny summer's day at a music festival, with protesters sat eating lentils in the sunshine, playing music and chatting with police and journalists.

The police formed a physical barrier in front of the entrance gates to Cuadrilla's site, while members of the media looked on in anticipation of further clashes which did not materialise.

Hannah Martin, a No Dash for Gas campaign member, told Petroleum Economist that the main reason for the group's opposition to fracking is that it promotes exploration for a non-renewable energy source.

"We're using shale gas to highlight ... (the government's) inability to plan for a renewable future," Martin said. "In the 'dash for gas' the government has lost sight of its renewable targets. It needs to become understood at all levels, politically and socially, that (the lack of support for renewable energy sources is) not acceptable because it's a slippery slope to an unrenewable future."

Martin's stance was reinforced by other activists I spoke to at Balcombe: as far as they were concerned, the protest was more an attempt to safeguard renewable energy interests in the UK rather than an attempt to ban fracking.

Martin said No Dash for Gas wants renewable energy that's 'affordable and accessible for all' but she did not have a clear idea of how to make this happen.

When asked by Petroleum Economist how renewable energy's share in the UK mix could be increased she replied: "I don't think I would be confident enough to give you the answer to that, but at the moment our energy mix is unacceptable."

Although UK electricity generated from renewable energy did increase last year, it still only made up around 4% of the total, according to government figures. The government wants this to rise to 15% by 2020.

The UK's renewable energy projects receive large government subsidies to keep them afloat. Some studies suggest the government's renewable energy targets could push average domestic energy bills up by a third by the end of the decade to around £1,900 ($2,950) a year.

Ofgem, the UK's electricity market regulator, estimates taxes relating to the government's support for renewable energy scheme already comprise around 16% of the average electricity bill.

However laudable the Balcombe protesters' aims are, they had a limited understanding of the UK's current energy mix and lacked any credible plan for reaching their dream of a 100% renewable energy future.

One protester, 25-year old John Wilkins, told Petroleum Economist he believes using more coal would be a more environmentally friendly source of energy than extracting shale gas. "In terms of poisoning people's water supplies and potential seismic effects, then coal is less harmful that fracking," he said.

Coal's carbon footprint is around twice that of natural gas when it burns, but a number of Balcombe protesters appeared to discount this the fact, focusing instead on the perceived threat of water pollution from fracking.

No wonder the public believes shale-gas extraction could be catastrophic. Neither the government nor industry acted quickly enough to explain fracking clearly, concisely and dispassionately. The skewed picture that emerges from sources such as the film Gasland has captured the public's imagination.

The government's attitude to shale gas has, rather than convincing the public that the resource could prove a blessing for the UK, aroused suspicion regarding its motives.

And this is where the green movement, and organisations such as No Dash for Gas, have been able to capitalise on public mistrust to further their own cause.

Linda Gregory, chair of the mid-Sussex Labour Party, Balcombe's neighbouring parliamentary constituency, told Petroleum Economist she believes the Green Party is exploiting the fracking protests at Balcombe for its own political ends.

"They (the Green Party) are bound to swarm in here like locusts and to stage rather cheap displays like ensuring their one and only MP gets arrested. (Lucas' arrest) was ... slightly embarrassing and tacky," Gregory said. "I think that leaves a bad taste in the villagers' mouths about how they are potentially being used."

Lucas denies the allegation, saying she did not set out to get arrested at the protest, stressing she believes fracking undermines efforts to tackle the climate crisis and poses potential risks to the local environment.

Lucas, who was not available to speak to Petroleum Economist, issued a statement saying: "Many constituents have lobbied me to take action against fracking, and I've done everything I can to raise it as an issue in Parliament ... Risking arrest isn't something I did lightly, but there are times when non-violent, peaceful direct action can be legitimate."

Lucas makes no secret of the fact that she has an interest in promoting renewable energy. She is a shareholder in the Brighton Energy Co-operative, which invests in solar power projects in Brighton and Hove, and she has a stake in the Westmill Wind Farm, a community-run project, in Oxfordshire.

Traditionally Sussex has been a strong source of political support for the Conservative party. The Labour Party's Gregory says the controversy over fracking is eroding support for the Conservative-led coalition government in the country.

"When the government says "this is good" without any qualification, then that lack of trust goes towards what its motivations are. But this protest comes right from the heart of this village," she said. "For the first time they have turned to the government (for help) and the government is turning its back. (The Conservatives) will pay a very high price for that."

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