The Economist: Why The Greens Cannot Win UK Shale Battle
Although many Britons are nervous about fracking, environmental concerns are no longer uppermost in many minds. Only 5% of Britons think the environment is important, according to Ipsos MORI, a pollster. At a time of low wage growth, energy bills are a much more important worry.
WHEN Cuadrilla Resources, an oil and gas company, first started exploring for oil in Balcombe, a pretty village in Sussex, a picnic was held outside the drilling site. The village has a history of quiet protest: high in the trees outside the station hang Countryside Alliance posters urging locals to fight the 2004 act banning fox-hunting. But for the past two weeks locals have been joined by more vocal demonstrators. Banners exclaim against hydrocarbons and capitalism. Protesters at a march on August 18th, some of whom sported the Guy Fawkes masks popularised by computer hackers and the Occupy movement, chanted slogans through megaphones to the patter of drums.
Several environmental protests have been successful in Britain. In the 1990s campaigners held up road building. In 2003 activists prevented genetically modified (GM) crops from being grown. There were large protests in 2008 against a plan to expand Heathrow airport, though the subsequent decision not to allow a third runway probably owed more to straightforward fears that voters would punish the party that pushed it through.
Many greens hope the protests against hydraulic fracturing could be just as effective. “It appeals to lots of different interests,” says Kevin Smith, a protester at Balcombe. Environmentalists broadly dislike fracking; so do people who simply fear disruption. Michael Fallon, the energy minister, has suggested it could test the thickness of rectory walls in middle England. One poll found that 41% of people thought Britain should start extracting shale reserves. When asked if it should happen in their local area, though, only 25% were keen.
James Wilsdon of the University of Sussex, who studies protest movements, points to another parallel. The enthusiasm government ministers, particularly Conservative ones, show for shale gas is reminiscent of the Labour government’s zeal for GM food a decade ago, he says. Rather than conveying decisiveness, this can make voters suspicious.
But the protesters are quite different these days. At Balcombe two groups set up camp: a national movement of anti-fracking groups from areas that may be affected by shale gas exploration—NIMBYs, in short—and a larger coalition of environmentalists and anti-capitalists called “No Dash for Gas”.
The second group claims, expansively, that its protest touches not just on energy but also on “health services, housing, education, food, transport and the freedom of movement”. Its members seem easily distracted: before going to Balcombe they were meant to set up at a power station in Nottinghamshire. At their site activists sat on bales of hay or lolled in the grass in the sun. “This is not a festival,” one protester reprimanded others, ordering them to clean up after their lunch.
Unlike the protests against GM crops, these groups are not enthusiastically backed by big organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They rely on private donations and are less tightly-knit than earlier protest groups. Their tactics owe more to Occupy London or to anti-austerity groups such as UK Uncut. They are quick at setting up camp sites equipped with kitchens and libraries. It is less certain how effective these groups are at sustaining a protest, particularly one which may require trekking to rural parts of the country to gain support. (Balcombe, less than an hour away from London, is unusually convenient.) With a high turnover of young protesters they can burn out easily, suggests Christopher Rootes of the University of Kent, another green-watcher.
And these groups are fighting for green causes at a difficult time. Although many Britons are nervous about fracking, environmental concerns are no longer uppermost in many minds. Whereas 19% of people thought the environment important in January 2007, only 5% did this year, according to Ipsos MORI, a pollster. At a time of low wage growth, energy bills are a worry. Until that changes, protesters may need to find a new cause to campaign over.