CUADRILLA IS BEGINNING FRACKING in Lancashire, blasting water, sand and chemicals at great volume deep underground to blast apart shale rock - with Ineos, owned by the richest man in Britain, Jim Ratcliffe, waiting in the wings near Chesterfield and Sheffield. It has taken seven years for these multinational petroleum and plastics firms to reach this point - mustering a colossal degree of government and police assistance to wrestle with a determined and unwavering opposition.
People woke up to fracking in Lancashire when Cuadrilla caused several earth tremors in 2011 - the first and only time fracking had been attempted in Britain (but was aborted before the full frack was completed). The government suspended operations for two years - taking evidence from compliant geologists and scientists with connections to the industry and ignoring hundreds of clear cases of earthquakes, water poisoning, and air pollution in Australia and America, to claim "gold standard" safeguards will ensure it wouldn't happen in Britain.
Here are three recent glaring signs that the government and its agencies really don't care about public health and safety, nor democratic scrutiny, when it comes to fracking:
the government wants to give exploratory drilling (the stage before fracking) the same status as garden sheds or fences - with no need for planning permission, and hence no means of councils being able to veto drilling and the setting up of sites primed for fracking.
the government established a traffic light warning system regarding earth tremors following the 2011 incidents: anything above 0.5 magnitude means a red light. But minister Claire Perry says the trigger levels could be relaxed.
Lancashire County Council will not reveal its emergency evacuation plan (if one exists) to the hundreds of residents who live close to the fracking site.
Not only are the police facilitating this dangerous adventure, using brute force to break up blockades, but so are the British judiciary. Three "lorry surfers" - activists who individually seized a superhero moment to jump on top of trucks as they turned into the Preston New Road site, remaining on top for more than 24 hours each, sustained by food, drink and blankets supplied by locals - were handed heavy prison sentences. Judge Robert Altham, in Preston, said the three were given more than a year's imprisonment each (a fourth defendant was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty) because they maintained they were in the right. The hundreds of people who staged a noisy solidarity protest outside HMP Preston concurred that they were indeed right.
This judge, the Mirror then revealed, has family ties to the oil and gas industry and his sister is a public advocate for fracking.
The three imprisoned - Richard Roberts, Simon Roscoe Blevins and Rich Loizou - were, however, released from Preston prison after three Court of Appeal judges held their jail sentences to be “manifestly excessive”. Speaking outside the prison Rich Loizou said: “The fracking industry threatens to industrialise our beautiful countryside. It will force famine, flooding and many other disasters on the world’s most vulnerable communities by exacerbating climate change. Fracking is beginning right now. So there has never been a more critical moment to take action. Your planet needs you.”
At the eleventh hour, a high court judge granted an emergency injunction stopping Cuadrilla from fracking until a challenge was heard regarding the lack of an evacuation plan. But on 12th October, the judge dismissed the case and lifted the injunction.
John McDonnell recently reconfirmed Labour's commitment to ban fracking and his solidarity with the three political prisoners. But he, like all of us, cannot halt this juggernaut. Only successful and sustained direct action, or a last-minute Court of Appeal ruling, could save the north of England from being fracked.
There are cracks appearing in the armour, though:
Michael Gove actually did something positive as Environment Secretary by ending the lease of public forest near Dorking, Surrey (Leigh Woods) to the oil industry - handing campaigners a victory.
Igas has given up some of its licensed areas in Cheshire.
And Lee Rowley, Tory MP in Derbyshire, with Ineos wanting to drill in his constituency (to produce gas to make plastic), told a party conference fringe meeting: “It’s a question of whether the Conservative Party supports the wholesale industrialisation of vast swathes of rural England - because the amount of fracking wells that would be needed would require two football fields of concrete to be poured over 6,000 sites and I just don't think it's going to work.”
Will fracking be stopped in the 59th minute of the eleventh hour or will communities and democracy be crushed by this government’s industrial complex?
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is an activist and independent journalist