The resumption of fracking at the Preston New Road site, Lancashire, yesterday (15 October) after a seven-year gap opens a dark new chapter in the story of fossil fuel extraction in the UK. However, at the same time, a movement is building that could bring about the end of the fossil fuel industry and replace it, from the bottom up, with something new. By Hazel Graham and Stephen Graham.
Coming just a week after the IPCC’s latest report – setting out that we have only 12 years left to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown – the decision to give fracking the green light at the north of England site highlights the UK Government’s complete disregard for environmental protection. Once again, the spotlight is on a bitter long-running battle in the climate justice struggle.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a controversial method of extracting gas or oil from rocks deep underground. This ‘unconventional’ extraction method sees a mixture of water and chemicals pumped at high pressure into rock formations. Oil and gas escape to the surface through the resulting fissures.
Given the seriousness of the ongoing global climate emergency, any form of fossil fuel extraction is irresponsible, dangerous and unnecessary, especially given that we already have the technology we need to make a shift to a zero carbon society. At the local level, there are many socio-environmental concerns relating to the fracking process. These include – but are not limited to – potential contamination of the water table, methane leakage, earth tremors, and degradation of agricultural land. There are other negative impacts, such as increased emissions and noise pollution from lorry traffic delivering the huge amounts of water required for the process. No fracking has taken place in the UK since 2011 when operations were halted on the Fylde coast following a minor earthquake.
Despite all of this, the Government has remained committed to pushing through this ecologically destructive process, whatever the cost. But they have been fought every step of the way by an impassioned and dedicated anti-fracking movement.
The making of a movement
Activists at Preston New Road have led an inspiring and dogged campaign in the face of state and corporate power. State-capital efforts to clamp down on peaceful anti-fracking protest reached such an extent that the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly raise concerns in 2016 regarding the ‘collusion between law enforcement authorities and private companies’.
Despite the efforts to stop them, however, the protestors at the site have held strong, and a dedicated movement has emerged to fight against the activities of Caudrilla, the company licensed to frack the Preston New Road site. Due to the level of local and vocal opposition, in 2015, Lancashire County Council turned down two planning applications from Cuadrilla to frack on the Fylde coast. However, the local council’s decisions – despite reflecting the views of so many local communities – was overturned by the Communities Secretary in 2016, Sajid Javid, giving fracking the go-ahead.
Over the years, this protest movement has grown in size and passion, gaining national momentum and international support. There has always been a core of experienced activists at the site, but some community members had never protested before. Because their voices were repeatedly not being heard, instead of writing to MPs, some began to chain themselves to fracking site railings. Previously mild-mannered letter-writers became demonstrators. Every day for several years there has been active, incredibly well-informed peaceful protest at the fracking site. And it has disrupted Cuadrilla’s ability to profit from the polluting fossil fuels they so desperately wanted to get their hands on.
So, in June 2018, Cuadrilla went to court in a bid to silence the communities who had stood in their way for so long. They obtained an injunction against campaigners who opposed the drilling operations at the Preston New Road site. The injunction prevented peaceful protest at the gates of the site. Cuadrilla is just one of several corporations that have recently used injunctions to silence protest.
The fight, of course, continued. Protest groups visited the site by the coachload. Given the dedication of the movement, it was clear that someone had to be made an example of. Consequently, last month four anti-fracking protestors were given jail sentences. Richard Roberts, Roscoe Blevins and Rish Loizou are now in jail serving custodial sentences of 16 months, 16 months and 15 months respectively, for peaceful anti-fracking protests. Julian Brock received a 12 month suspended sentence.
These prison terms – the longest received by environmental activists in over 80 years – are widely viewed as politically motivated; the actions of a ruling elite that is content to ignore public opinion and ride roughshod over democratic processes in a bid to destroy a movement and protect the fossil economy.
These protestors are, of course, heroes. The companies that extract fossil fuels and the politicians and courts that work to facilitate the process are the true criminals.
One of many groups to lend huge support to the struggle has been the trade union movement. Trade Unionists have shown mass support for the anti-fracking protests across the UK and especially in Lancashire, with multiple days of action organised.
Last week we saw trade union leaders standing in solidarity with the imprisoned non-violent anti fracking activists and condemning the ‘dangerous precedent’ set by their arrest. Over 200 members from a huge range of unions signed an open letter calling for a judicial review of the shocking sentences given to the protestors. The trade unionists strongly condemn the judgement and, “the dangerous precedent it sets for the right to protest and take non-violent direct action against threats to the climate and the environment.”
The letter states:
“Trade unionists have long seen their legitimate rights oppressed with the use of force, and are proud to support of our sisters and brothers taking a stand against injustice. The treatment of striking miners at the so called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ remains a potent symbol of the underhand tactics of the state against the working class for which justice is still being sought over thirty years later.
“We need investment in a publicly owned and democratically controlled energy system, which can oversee the transition to renewable energy. A transition that is just by providing social protections for workers, and creates unionised sustainable jobs across all sectors as we develop a new zero carbon economy.
“We stand in solidarity with the imprisoned anti – Fracking activists and support the call for a judicial review of this absurdly harsh sentence, and an inquiry into the wider attacks on the right to protest and freedom of assembly.”
At the TUC Congress in 2018, in a historic vote, the trade union movement called for a moratorium on fracking in England. (It has already been stopped in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Many unions support a full ban.
Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of the TSSA transport union, said: “We stand in solidarity with these brave anti-fracking protesters, in their campaign of non-violent action…As trade unionists we support the rights of those seeking to take direct action and we fully back the call for a judicial review in the case of these imprisoned activists.”
Chris Baugh, Assistant General Secretary of PCS, stated: “There is no safe fracking. It is not safe for the environment, water supplies, citizens or workers, or in addressing climate change concerns. Solidarity with the imprisoned anti-fracking activists and we call for their immediate release.”
Trade Unions join forces on climate issues through the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group. Regarding the arrests, Suzanne Jeffery, Chair, said, “This is a political sentence clearly designed to intimidate and stop the anti-fracking movement…rather than locking up protesters, we need to be urgently investing in good, well paid, skilled jobs for a low carbon future.”
On 20 October, the community will hold a massive National Climate Crisis Rally at Maple Farm Community Hub, Preston New Road. It is vital that we show fracking companies that they will face disruption and opposition across the country wherever they go. Their polluting technologies are not needed, as we already have the low-carbon technology we need to tackle climate change.
If you have previously supported anti-fracking campaigns from the side-lines, the time to stand up and be counted is now.
We need to build a mass movement to resist the power of fossil capital and demand a just transition to an ecologically-sustainable zero carbon society. Let us stand up against the state-capital nexus and fight for the future of this planet.
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