“Frack off” read hand-painted signs held aloft along a leafy road leading to Lower Stumble, a wooded field a half-mile south of where the drilling company Cuadrilla Resources recently erected a rig.
Although Cuadrilla is, at this point, drilling only an exploratory well, questions about the safety of fracking — the process of extracting gas by blasting water and chemicals at high pressure into rock beds — have ignited popular resistance.
The worries have not only rattled Balcombe’s many well-heeled residents, who have expressed their concerns with characteristic restraint — over tea, at parish council meetings and with knit-ins — but also brought out a louder army of environmental activists. They recently descended on this bucolic retreat wearing the mask of Guy Fawkes, the Briton who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, shouting slogans and telling horror stories about the United States, where they believe fracking has caused earthquakes, water pollution and the rapid industrialization of areas that were formerly pristine.
The brouhaha has upset the rural rhythm of a region that would normally be gearing up for pheasant-shooting season, set to begin soon on the sprawling local estates.
Supporters of fracking, led by the British government, have gazed across the Atlantic at the shale gas revolution gripping the United States and ushering in a new era of lower energy bills, energy security and jobs. They say that, if properly regulated, fracking is safe and that changes to the landscape would be minor.
But environmentalists and nervous locals aren’t convinced.
“Britain is not North Dakota,” wrote the Financial Times.
Balcombe’s residents have a hard time figuring out what to make of the sudden international attention.
“It’s normally such a quiet road,” said Paula Magee, a 49-year-old from Balcombe who has stopped drinking local water for fear of the impact of drilling on the water supply. Nearly every day, she makes the half-mile trek from the village, down the normally quiet road, past the long line of police vans here to keep the peace, across the sea of colorful-if-tatty tents to the entrance of a 72-foot-tall drilling rig.
Making the headlines
The protesters arrived about a month ago and have drawn praise from celebrities such as comedian Russell Brand and fashion guru Vivienne Westwood.
Their cause began grabbing headlines here shortly after the British Geological Survey said in a July report that there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in northern England — twice the amount as previously thought. So, though fracking isn’t new to this isle, the notion that there could be wide-scale exploration for shale gas has gripped the nation.
The scene in Balcombe has vacillated from protest via strumming guitar to charged scuffles with police. Policing costs for the protests have exceeded $3.5 million, according to county police, who have arrested 80 people, including Caroline Lucas, a Green Party member of Parliament.
On a recent day of “mass civil disobedience,” protesters from the group No Dash for Gas fanned out across the country, with some blockading the drilling site, some gluing themselves to the glass entrance of the oil company’s public relations office in London and others delivering a wind turbine blade to the office of the local member of Parliament. Cuadrilla Resources halted operations for six days.
“Clearly, the protests have put fracking on the political agenda,” said Emma Hughes, a spokeswoman for No Dash for Gas, adding that there are about 40 anti-fracking groups across the country.
Cuadrilla officials are keen to stress that they are drilling merely an exploratory well. They emphasize that they have complied with local planning and environmental requests and that if they were to propose fracking, they would seek necessary permissions and welcome scrutiny.
As in many parts of the country, opinions here vary widely. A survey last year by the parish council found that 82 percent of respondents were against fracking. But Thursday, 60 villagers published a letter saying that the technology should be accepted and that protesters should leave their “hitherto beautiful road verges.”
Impact on policy
Some analysts question whether this rural ballyhoo is just a rural ballyhoo or whether it could affect energy policy in Britain and, perhaps more broadly, in Europe. Fracking is banned in France and Bulgaria.
Britain, after all, has a track record of triumphant environmental activism, most famously with protests in the 1990s that led the government to roll back its road-building program.
The risk-analysis firm Eurasia Group said in a statement that “civil society engagement will contribute to a stringent regulatory regime” that could deter oil and gas companies from attempting to exploit shale gas.
Alastair Harper, a spokesman for the think tank Green Alliance, said there is huge concern in the environmental community that Britain’s newfound gusto for fracking will scare off investors in renewable technologies, who are questioning the government’s appetite to meet its legally binding climate-change targets.
“People based in China, in America, are choosing where to put money around the world, and they have chosen the U.K. for renewable stuff . . . but the prime minister is putting off investors,” Harper said. “He’s picked a side, and that’s quite alarming.”
Aware that shale gas might help replace dwindling oil and gas supplies in the North Sea, the British government in July introduced incentives designed to kick-start the industry, including tax breaks that Finance Minister George Osborne described as “the most generous for shale in the world.”
A recent YouGov poll found that 41 percent of Britons surveyed thought the country should start extracting shale gas reserves. Only 25 percent thought it would be a good thing in their area.
“If you live in a densely populated island, which this is, the qualities of the countryside are precious to people,” said Paul Ekins, a professor of energy and environment policy at University College London, “and when they feel it’s threatened, they react quite strongly.”