Essay by Helen Baczkowska
The natural gas drilled for in fracking is part of an ancient epic. It is the story of rocks that date from when our island was not an island, our recognisable continents still clustered southwards. It is also the tale of people whose lives have been shaped by the struggle to stop the drilling for shale gas.
The shales containing the gas are sedimentary rocks, formed from yet older stone, weathered and denuded in the slowness of geological time. The fine silt and clay of erosion was washed to deep oceans, lakes or swamps, drifting down to a patchy, settling over thousands of years, entombing gases in the flaws and the hollows. Millennia of slumbering followed, sediments slowly compressed by the sediments above, the weight causing lithification, the alchemy of the soft turning to bedrock, the shale layered, or laminated and fissile, or easy to split.
Fracking, condensed from hydraulic fracturing, is the splintering of subterranean rock, usually with water thickened with chemicals, injected under high pressure. Proppants, grains of silica sand or aluminium oxide, hold the cracks open, allowing the release of trapped gas to a surface wellhead. Step by chemical, complicated step, we are promised that our hunger for energy will be sated. As the surveys for shale gas began, so too did the voices of dissent, growing louder into demonstrations and objections to planning applications, to protest camps and direct action. Some of these voices have been recorded for Faultlines.
As I listen to the interviews, I hear heartbeats of my own past, entwined as it is with the history of environmental resistance in these islands. Twenty-five years ago, in the south of England, I watched a chalk hill called Twyford Down removed to make way for a motorway. Over two years, tonne after tonne of white chalk was gouged out and spread on the ancient, tranquil water meadows below, levelling the land for the carriageways. Like those opposing fracking now, we who resisted the road-building learnt swiftly the language of campaigning, the phrases of the planning process, of judicial review and cost benefit analysis. When we lived on the land and took direct action against the construction of the road, we absorbed the legal vocabulary of squatting law and eviction, of arrest and injunction, bail and imprisonment.
The impending threat of destruction brought both determination and the fragility we feel when faced with the mortality of that which we love. I was not alone in feeling it was as the grief of knowing I was losing a loved one, watching their life slip away like grains of sand between fingers. A grief deepened by knowing that the place should have been permanent, lasting unchanged beyond our time.
What was born at Twyford Down was a joyous, shifting, drifting community of protestors, flowing between occupations at roads and quarries, airport construction sites and opencast coal mines, providing mutual support and working closely with local residents fighting for their place. Today, those protests stand as a reminder of the strength of feeling generated by the threatened destruction of a well-loved place.
The voices recorded for Faultlines tell of the places where they live and their fears for the consequences of fracking. For many, the starting place for their opposition has been the risk to earth and air and water, the frequently referred to ‘industrialisation’ of the countryside.
Claire, from Preston New Road Action Group:
It is not about one well, not about two wells. To make this economically viable, they are going to have to industrialise the whole area.
Barbara R., from Roseacre in Lancashire, was on the point of retiring when she received a letter from the exploration and production company Cuadrilla Resources, proposing fracking near her home:
I wanted to live in the countryside, for the scenery, for the peace and quiet... the fact that I could go out walking... but also for the local community. I had that idea of making jam, the Women's Institute... I haven't the time, because two years ago I got a letter from Cuadrilla... I believe very strongly in having a countryside that people can enjoy. Even people in the cities want to go out and enjoy the countryside.
It's very wide open here, it's a flat, wide open space. Big skies and that. It's very quiet out here, particularly in the summer, all you hear are the birds and you go and stand outside and it is so beautiful and peaceful and I start thinking about what fracking means, the noise, the traffic, the impact on the wildlife and it makes me feel quite sad... I have actually stood outside my house and I actually cried one morning, 'cos it was so beautiful and I thought - this is all at risk.
Rachel is a teacher from Newton Le Willows; she talks of the Mucky Mountains, the local name for a green space near her home:
It’s actually industrial waste; if I remember correctly, it was from when there was a sugar factory there… you can see when the wildlife starts growing over the industrial waste that we do have some hope… but with fracking – the chemicals involved in fracking are too much…it is basically not in anyone’s lifetime that the land can be used again or even safe to be near. There’s so many reasons why fracking is absurd, but that should be a good enough reason on its own.
We need our green belt, we need the landscape, we need the fresh air. We need the right proportion of green belt to city and once that proportion is not right, we're just going to have more and more early deaths, more illness from air pollution.
In central Scotland, disused coal mines run uncharted below the houses and streets of Falkirk; a few miles away are the towers and flares of Grangemouth oil refinery. The INEOS corporation owns both refinery and fracking licenses. Conflict over the value of the landscape became a core of the public enquiry in Falkirk.
The company would argue… in the enquiry… saying – it’s an industrialised area anyway. There’s pylons, there’s Grangemouth… they were really dismissive of the landscape, saying it is industrialised. We don’t see it as being industrialised.
These are connections to landscape forged on the edge lands of towns and industry. Not the far-flung wilds or grand mountains, but the intimate landscapes of the local, of footpaths and tow paths beside canals, the wide blue skies above tended fields and fragments of valley and wood. Here we escape in a moment and usually on foot. Our eyes relax to the greenery around us, we encounter wildlife, watch streams or clouds or the sea and find space away from cluttered, frenetic lives.
Concerns over long-lasting impacts on land are informed by the raw shock of fracked landscapes in the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Aerial photographs of mountains and forests show rough grids of new roads and the pale, stripped squares of wellsites, dense and as intricate as the brittle networks inside a computer, stretched out across the green horizons.
Tony, from Ribble Estuary Against Fracking, speaks in his soft, country voice, of the short-lived nature of each new well, with its access track and reservoir for fracking fluids, all abandoned after a handful of years when the gas runs out.
We are talking twenty or thirty years ahead, having gas fields all over our country – an industrialised landscape.
Maria in Falkirk says:
They need a lot of wells to do this and to travel across the landscape… Every application is considered on its own merits and the one thing they are not considering in this type of industry is the cumulative impact… you can’t just consider one application without considering what is the five or ten year plan.
Claire’s family rely on a farm business not far from the Preston New Road site, reliant on “clean air and soil”. She fears the redundant wells left behind, which:
… you are not going to be able to reclaim… the likelihood of land returning to agriculture is very slim.
Neil works on the community farm he helped establish in Burscough, West Lancashire, supplying vegetables to local families. Birdsong and a breeze whisper behind:
Over the bridge there they are replacing a culvert on the canal, they have come in and built a roadway of sleepers; there’s been wagon after wagon, each one carrying forty tonnes of railway sleepers… the amount of disruption that’s caused – that’s tiny compared to what’s going to be used. The way it is described by the Government and the people who want it to go ahead, it sounds like its just a little thing where someone pops up in the corner of a field, drills a little, then caps it off and goes away. I now realise the implications of it are far worse than that.
This is probably some of the best soil in the world for growing vegetables; you can grow pretty much anything here… It’s the land that fed Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution… this land is a resource that needs preserving and being looked after.
These quiet, insistent voices speak of that which cannot be captured on the graphs of impacts, benefits and costs used by the industry and the planning authorities. Instead, they reveal how our connection to place is rooted in the settings for memories, the backgrounds for the stories of our lives and of those that are or have been important to us.
Gillian, from Frack Free Chorley in Lancashire, returned to her childhood village after a career in London and Hong Kong:
As a young girl, these woods were our playground… it is just an innate part of me.
I grew up on a farm in South Wales and you need to care for the land… wildlife has no voice. For me, it is a spiritual thing. I feel close to God being out in the countryside.
We live in a time of virtual and actually mobility, expecting instant connection to the wider world; in such a time, attachment to place could be viewed with suspicion, associated with the retrogressive and archaic, to a narrow world view. Yet, the Faultlines interviews underline what it is that we find in the places we connect with, what they bring us in solace and being where we seek out ourselves.
Pam, from Residents Action on Flyde Fracking, watches each year for the wintering geese that roost in great flocks on the coastal wetlands of the North-West:
I get a lump in my throat when I see those huge flocks of geese flying in here and here we are, we are about to destroy the land that they fed on in winter.
The campaigners echo each other in their concerns for the long-term impacts on air and water, as well as on the land itself. They are versed in the risks of increased earth tremors and the irreversible changes fracking has wrought in other parts of the world - the impacts on stone and earth, the risks of pollution to air and impacts on water from the toxic fracking fluid injected into the rock.
Claire cites a report from Cuadrilla Resources:
…very little of the fracture fluid returns to the surface, so when we inject the water in there, most of it does not come back. No one knows exactly what is going on or where the water goes orwhere the final resting place is.
Several interviewees mention the inevitability of an accident with the contaminated water, which is frequently removed from drill sites in lorries and they draw on evidence from the rest of the world, stressing that this time it will be in a smaller, more densely populated country.
What happens if a HGV carrying waste-water out tips over in one of the ditches over on the Moss and gets into the water system? How’s that going to affect the farmers and the agriculture?
Recurring themes of land and water are followed by reflections on the process of planning decisions and of the hours committed to research as proposals for fracking unfolded.
Simon moved north to Formby from London to be closer to his partner’s family and the sounds of his children ripple through the background of his interview:
I’m not the sort of person just to take information I’m given as being correct… the more I read into what would come off the back of a seismic survey, there was really no option than to get involved and help set up the local group.
As a result ofher own research, Gillian now runs information events on fracking:
We talk about the water, about the geology of the land and the fault lines that run under Lancashire and we also talk about the health impacts of the chemicals, the methane gas, the permanent noise, the lorries going backwards and forwards, the fact that they will have to put in the infrastructure of roads. All of that and it's not one well, it’s several wells. You look at the countries where they have had hydraulic fracking and you can see the devastation on the land, the wildlife, the environment, the trees, the soil. Where are you going to get your food from..? It is a toxic nightmare.
Like a pebble dropped into water, unease over fracking has opened up or strengthened awareness of environmental issues and connected people within their community, but with similar struggles across the world.
It starts off being not in my backyard, but goes a long way further than that once you inform yourself. It’s not ‘don’t frack Lancashire’ – it’s not here, not anywhere.
Maria speaks of the global fracking industry and how the refinery at Grangemouth is a proposed site for processing the extracted gas:
The issue we have here is… even if it is banned here, we’re importing it from Pennsylvania and communities there are being impacted and if they do do it down south, they’ll bring it up here to be processed.
Integral to the awakening awareness is the connection between the extraction of fossil fuels and climate change.
Barbara from Roseacre asks:
Why are we extracting fossil fuels from the Earth? Why are we doing that when we should be exploiting natural sources of power… it is almost like we are trying to drain the very last resources from out of the ground… it’s very short sighted… they could have been investing in green, renewable energy and those jobs are sustainable jobs.
Ann in Bolton talks of the need to reduce demand for energy and increase our use of renewable energy:
I have been aware of climate change for a long time… I take it as a baseline that we should be thinking about phasing them out not finding ways, dirty ways of getting them… we are so wasteful… we’ve got a responsibility as one of the biggest carbon producers to look at our consumption and at least consider ways we can minimise the impact. We can still have a good quality of life using a lot less resources.
Alongside opposition to fracking, many communities affected are now exploring ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and support more benign ways of meeting energy demands.
Encounters with fracking often begin with seismic surveys of shale. Using sound waves bounced off underground rock formations, these produce detailed images of local geology and locate sources of shale gas. Submissions of planning applications for drill sites and haulage roads follow. Objections to planning applications have run hard into statutory decision making processes, politics and the power of corporations, leaving some many of those interviewed questioning democracy itself.
In 2016, events in Lancashire stoked fires of simmering outrage. Initially, Lancashire County Council refused permission for fracking at Preston New Road, but that October, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government over-ruled them, granting permission for construction to start.
Claire, started to investigate fracking after realising the proposed well was just half a mile from her children’s primary school:
When the planning application went in there was no mentioned of the school.
Claire relates how lobbying, a petition and a press campaign led to:
A lot of attacks from the industry, both verbally and on social media, we were followed by industry security guards. One day, me and my kids were blocked in on a country road by Cuadrilla’s security guards … they were taking pictures and videoing us and followed us for six miles, taking photos while he was driving
I hope democracy prevails – as a county we said ‘no’, but the Government has taken it out of their control. Democracy is under threat.
Many interviewees admit that their experiences have wrought frustration with the major corporations involved in fracking and with politicians’ apparent lack of commitment to protecting the environment or reducing fossil fuels.
Neil believes that:
Fracking has been driven by profit at the expense of the planet and that just doesn’t make any sense to me at all, because you’ve got to live with the consequences after.
People believe what they are being told – that they will get money for local councils and the local economy, but in other places where fracking has occurred there is no evidence of this – very few permanent jobs, very little if anything off the gas bill.
Ann sees the planning system as “loaded in favour of the developers”, who have a right of appeal if they don’t get permission, whereas:
Objectors don’t have a right of appeal unless they think there’s something gone wrong with the process itself.
We are powerless or often feel powerless to assert our sense of place or aspirations for the area in the face of corporations and developers who have the ear of politicians. That’s what we have seen with… fracking.
It is insulting really that our system allows corporations to have priority over people’s wellbeing.
These tales of environmental cost are shadowed by tales of personal cost.
Those of us who are my age all say we didn’t plan to do this in our retirement. I thought I’d be campaigning with Friends of the Earth… and as retired trade union member promoting renewables… we’ve all put our lives on hold doing what we never intended to do. All our allotments are curling up and dying. All the things that we want to do are on hold.
Her account also contains a more sober element, arising from an arrest initially for aggravated trespass, used against protestors disrupting construction work:
I got an assault charge on top of the aggravated trespass and I couldn’t afford to appeal. The security guard... reckoned he’d gota paper cut from a pamphlet I’d given him... After 18 months, I was suspended from the nursing register and I was 63 and they said this would take ages to appeal, so I may was well retire. This was devastating… I got clinical depression.
Carol and her husband were spending most of their free time actively fighting a planning application by Dart Energy when he fell unexpectedly ill:
The last year of my poor husband’s life was dominated by this. He died in a hospice, soon after the end of the public inquiry.
Construction at Preston New Road faced persistent protests; people stood at the gates with banners and slow walked vehicles entering the drill site, hindering trucks by a slow shuffle in front of them. Sitting or standing on the trucks became known as surfing.
In May 2018, Cuadrilla Resources sought an injunction against anyone taking or actively supporting actions at Preston New Road. Those breaking it face being jailed, fined or having their assets seized. The injunction is being challenged in court and broken in deliberate defiance.
Barbara C. was interviewed at the New Hope camp near the Preston New Road drill site; a child, pleased with an ice cream, interrupts her account of the camp, of food brought by local residents and the camaraderie of the evenings:
It’s really lovely. It’s an ex-petrol station, but it’s all completely overgrown. It’s got mature trees, a wooded path to go on to the site. It’s a lovely place to be if it wasn’t for the fracking… we have to protest. We have to make our mark. We can’t do it by just standing at the gate - we get swept away. We can’t do it by slow-walking alone. The press give us absolutely no coverage, but the investors have to know that it is not welcome here.
This is a story still being told, and it seems appropriate, then, that I write this in uncertain times, when the familiar political topography of my country has been shaken and buckled; a time of bated breath whilst we wait to see how the tales of our times will unfold. The drilling and the shattering of rocks, the changes to water and removal of hills, make real the era some geologists call the Anthropocene. In this new geological age, the footprint of human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment, written down for eternity in the geological record of the planet.
As the story is told, the last words, of course, belong to the people opposing fracking proposals in their community.
Barbara C. believes:
You can’t stay away, because the job isn’t done and we hope to succeed… we want to cripple the industry before it gets a foothold… It may be heartbreaking and we cry everyday, but it is inspiring and it’s loads of fun as well.
Gillian, who draws much strength from the natural world says:
Collectively we are little drops of water that on our own can’t do much, but together we are a rising tide.