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Times Leader: Protest Vs Truth In The Battle Of Balcombe

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Editorial, The Times

In the Battle of Balcombe, Britain’s need for a sensible energy policy is pitted against a chorus of angry nonsense

Hundreds of protesters may force the Cuadrilla oil exploration company to continue to suspend operations today at its site near Balcombe in West Sussex. If so they will claim a victory, but it would be a victory for propaganda over feeble policing, the rule of law, common sense, scientific evidence and the kind of forward-looking energy policy that Britain sorely needs.

Balcombe’s uninvited guests are opposed to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in search of gas. As it happens Cuadrilla is looking for oil in West Sussex, not gas, but the protesters have not let such details trouble them so far and have shown a similar lack of interest in reality even in the debate on their chosen subject of fracking for gas.

Pioneered in Texas by the late George Mitchell, fracking has transformed energy supply in the United States and could do the same here. It offers a new source of natural gas that, unlike energy from renewable sources, could fuel much of the 20 per cent of Britain’s generation capacity that needs to be replaced over the next ten years. Large-scale fracking would lessen Britain’s dependence on piped gas from Russia and liquefied gas from the Middle East. It would create tens of thousands of jobs and, by boosting the overall supply, would ease pressure on energy prices.

Fracking has been linked by its critics to earthquakes, domestic gas flares and poisoned aquifers. It is true that the process injects water and sand at high pressure into deep layers of shale and that exploratory drilling near Blackpool may have contributed to two minor tremors there in 2011. Fracking has not, however, caused a single serious seismic event here or in the US. It has not set light to anyone’s kitchen except in the imagination of one documentary filmmaker who asserted that it had in defiance of the evidence; and it has not been proven to have poisoned anyone’s water. Nor is it likely to do so in any sites explored in the UK, where thousands of feet of rock separate the water table from the hydrocarbon-bearing shale.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel. It is carbon-based and therefore inevitably releases carbon dioxide when burnt. To this extent it is a contributor to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yet it is far less carbon-intensive than oil or coal and also produces less particulate pollution — also known as soot, grime or smog — than either. For these reasons it is accepted by responsible environmentalists, at least as a bridge fuel to a low-carbon future.

No Dash for Gas, one of the most vocal groups now encamped in the fields near Balcombe, is wilfully blind to all these factors. There is a legitimate argument to make against switching from oil dependency to gas dependency at the expense of pushing for the technological breakthroughs still needed to boost the commercial viability of renewables. But instead of making it, the anti-fracking Luddites have accused Cuadrilla of operating without a “social licence” or a “democratic mandate”.

This is the kind of nonsense that gives environmentalism a bad name. Society may be divided on the merits of fracking, but Cuadrilla’s responsibility in the battle of Balcombe is to uphold the law while seeking new energy reserves, not to pander to propagandists or, for that matter, voters. It is the Government that needs a democratic mandate. It has one, and it supports fracking. Given this context, the advice given by Sussex police to Cuadrilla to suspend operations until it can guarantee the company’s security amounts to a lamentable surrender. Protesters’ right to protest is precious and protected by law. So is business’s right to go to work.

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