The British government has been looking enviously at America’s shale gas revolution: the rebirth of energy intensive industries, the plummeting price of natural gas and the boost to economic growth. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron would love a piece of that kind of action.
But getting the British people to fall in love with fracking is proving a struggle. Protest has flared up at a small test drilling site near the pretty village of Balcombe in the southern county of Sussex. And the protest is proving popular. Climate campaigners from across the country have joined forces with the villagers , marching and chanting outside the site, occasionally clashing with police and trying to hinder the trucks driving in and out. Balcombe is not exactly a hotbed of rebellion and dissent; the residents are mostly well-heeled and conservative but the prospect of fracking in their neighborhood has provoked a militant reaction.
“We held a poll and 82 percent wanted the Parish Council to oppose fracking. And that is now Parish Council policy," says vice chairman of the council, Rodney Saunders. “If it’s going to take place we’d probably prefer it to be done somewhere else. Classic nimbyism.”
Some villagers may be mainly motivated by concern about the value of their property, but many, like Delia Rosenboom, also appear genuinely alarmed by the wider, potential impact of fracking.
“I’m deeply worried because everything I’ve heard, read, witnessed through movies, about this is that there’s a massive amount in harmful substances released into the water, the air, into the earth,” says Rosenboom. “This isn’t nimbyism. I wouldn’t want anyone being fracked anywhere.”
In face of the growing protest at Balcombe, Prime Minister David Cameron staunchly defended fracking. He said it could create 70,000 jobs in Britain, unleash enough natural gas to keep the country going for 50 years -- and as in the U.S. -- lead to sharply lower gas prices.
Frances Egan agrees: That’s not surprising. He’s the boss of Cuadrilla -- the company carrying out the Balcombe test drilling. He points out that Britain will, anyway, be using natural gas for many years to come.
“So we have a choice,” argues Egan. "We either develop our own resources or we import them. If we produce our own, we generate a lot of tax revenue and a lot of jobs. And yes, I do believe it can be done safely. I strongly believe it can be done safely."
Cuadrilla did trigger two small earthquakes while fracking in the north of England, but supporters of the process claim that the seismic activity was less than you would get from a fall of coal in a disused mine.
Back at Balcombe -- even though the test drilling is underway -- the protest seems to go from strength to strength, garnering more and public support.
Vanessa Vine, a local resident turned environmental activist, says the Battle of Balcombe could be a turning point for this technology in Britain.
“The press are watching,” Vine says. ”The politicians are watching. The industry is watching. And they’re beginning to realize that they can’t just force this through and they cannot pull the wool over our eyes.”
Another villager, Steve Morris, claims that fracking will face a much rougher ride in Britain than in the U.S. He lived in California for 10 years and he says Britain is much more densely populated than America.
“When you have wide open tracts of land where nobody can see what you’re up to, and nobody lives anywhere nearby. You can get away with it. Here, you can’t do it in the middle of nowhere because there is no middle of nowhere anymore. You’re never far away from anyone at all. And it’s always going to be in someone’s backyard."
Neither Cuadrilla, nor the British government shows any sign of relenting in their quest for shale oil and gas. But thousands of holes will have to be drilled across the U.K.
With many more protests in the offing, this could be a very slow energy revolution.