- Category: Environment / Green Politics
- Published on Friday, 6 June 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
The Dee estuary area was one of the first areas to be approved by the coalition government for extreme energy extraction - coal bed methane, fracking and underground coal gasification or just fracking in the usual shorthand. There had been national actions against fracking at Balcombe and at Barton Moss, with a few local people involved in the latter but there was little local organisation at the beginning of 2014 - just a couple of small Facebook groups.
Cheshire West Left Unity decided to try and kickstart things so we called a public meeting in Chester - our first - in January. Twenty eight people attended, including the local press and, although the speaker didn't turn up and we had done little enough preparation, the meeting pretty much ran itself so expert and committed were the audience. Within a few weeks we had a plethora of Facebook groups with hundreds of members (now thousands), organising meetings across the affected areas - largely rural areas except for one Chester suburb.
Just in time. In March exploratory drilling was started in Farndon, a village south of Chester - the anti-fracking campaign responded with a couple of mass protests and the beginning of a protection camp. The drilling company - Dart Energy - soon went away that time, having completed their exploratory drilling but it was a useful test run for local organisation - and we knew what the rigs looked like. We now have a permanent encampment at Upton, on the fringe of Chester and their anticipated next site.
Meanwhile the campaign had spread. In Wrexham comrades were just in time to protest at a council planning meeting considering the first exploratory fracking application. Over 50 attended at short notice and, to everyone's astonishment, the Labour planing committee voted 19 to 2 to refuse the application, against officers' advice. Wrexham is a town with memories of methane, and its effects, scarred deep into its psyche following the Gresford disaster of 1934.
In Wirral meanwhile the major concern is the threat of underground coal gasification underneath the entire Dee estuary. One would have thought the idea of setting fire to underground coal seams to produce gas was fairly obviously dodgy and indeed the experience in the few places it has been tried (like Stalin's Russia) has been uniformly disastrous. That hasn't stopped the laughably named Department of Energy and Climate Change issuing Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) for the entire Dee estuary and a string of others shown on the map below.
All of which raises the question of the politics of fracking. We can assume that national government, under either the coalition or Labour, is completely under the thumb of the energy industry. That is why they are now holding another fake consultation on a proposals to stop landowners refusing permission for fracking under their land - even private property rights must bow to big capital.
Local councils are more open to influence, as the Wrexham experience shows - but they are ultimately powerless. The Wrexham decision is being appealed by iEnergy and the appeal will win. Planning officers in local authorities invariably advise for accepting fracking applications as a result. This obviously raises certain issues as to the extent of our democracy.
As will in due course the role of the police. At Barton Moss and Balcombe the police operated aggressively, resulting in a string of largely failed prosecutions. Round here they are being suspiciously friendly as yet, while of course gathering information all the time.
Our side meanwhile has a largely, and loosely, anarchoid feel to it. Left Unity and socialist activists like myself have had no significant problems being part of the movement, provided we aren't seeking to dominate; and there are plenty of arguments to be made - and listened to if you are in good faith - about other political issues. So we have members our protection camp being attacked for being on benefit. Or we have the local, Tory, council leader claiming, ludicrously, to be concerned about fuel poverty while doing nothing about deepening actual poverty.
We can make links to trades unions with similar ease - one of the initial activists around here, apart from Left Unity members, was a PCS activist, and the Upton anti-fracking group had a substantial presence at our May Day rally. And we can initiate actions, as I did here. There are occasional problems - one local activist, a good one and a Socialist Appeal member, supports fracking on the economic development grounds - but not many.
But of course we've hardly started yet. The state and the industry will play a long game if need be, harnessing fears about energy shortages, buying off some opposition and repressing the rest. In Cheshire West the council is trying to position itself at the forefront of fracking development - they had more representatives at a recent industry conference than any other council. They aren't going to give up. There are anti-fracking groups springing up everywhere. Get involved.