Hysterical “luddites” funded by Russia was how Jacob Rees-Mogg, in parliament yesterday, described concerned residents opposed to fracking in England. What a slap in the face for those of us who have spent more than a decade trying to protect our communities from the dangerous, polluting shale gas industry. We have never received so much as a rouble or a vodka shot for our efforts.
Here in Lancashire, we actually believed we had won this fight – twice. Our first victory was in 2015, when Lancashire county council rejected planning applications from the fracking firm Cuadrilla for two large sites between Preston and Blackpool. This decision was overruled by Westminster in 2016, and work began in 2017 to transform the Preston New Road site from a field where cows graze into a shale gas site. Nanas Against Fracking, a group I co-founded, started protesting at the site that day too, and continued for more than 1,000 days.
Our second short-lived victory came in November 2019, when the government had to halt fracking and put a moratorium in place, because the work had set off an earthquake measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale. Even if it is possible to ““monitor” earthquakes, which are one of the most immediately dangerous risks of fracking, the government had to face the fact that you can’t control them. The moratorium brought some relief to local residents and campaigners; although, of course, we wanted an outright ban put in place in order to finally draw a line under this and feel at ease again.
The government’s decision to lift the moratorium yesterday sent shockwaves through our community. As an anti-fracking Nana, I know how much time and energy it takes to confront a heavily financed industry, while the government acts as its cheerleaders and police are used as security on fracking sites. My fellow Nanas Against Fracking feel angry and confused, as though we have been here before. In addition to earthquakes, we are racked with other worries, such as whether home insurance premiums will increase, as they have done for people living in areas near shale gas fracking sites in the US. Will we, like some of them, see higher incidences of childhood leukaemia? What about the issues with maternal health – for example, an increased rate of stillbirths, for which there is some evidence in Utah? What will be the impacts of the waste and methane released by fracking? Has the value of our properties already dropped?
Witnessing this gross failure of democracy can feel hopeless. I remember an older man in Balcombe in 2013 looking out of the window of a teashop in the village as it became populated with protesters. He said he had believed that working, paying his taxes, never breaking the law, raising his family, and owning his home meant that he was part of a democratic society, that he could call on the government if he felt at risk. But his MP – Francis Maude, who appointed Lord Browne, the chairman of Cuadrilla, as the government’s senior business adviser – did little to help. Seeing our protest, the man said he was relieved. He had been worried about what fracking would do to the health and wellbeing of people living in Balcombe, and that we were the only ones who heeded his call.
So, if you want to resist fracking in your town, community organising is the place to start. At its height, the anti-fracking movement in the UK was made up of 300 autonomous groups across the country. As well as physically protesting, we lobbied our local MPs, informed councillors, held public meetings, objected to planning, researched and networked, and spread our message in the media. We made sure there was a role for everyone in this movement, regardless of their age, ability, background or location.
There is a place for nonviolent direct action too. It helps to infuse activism with joy. If you want to undertake a 1,000-day protest like ours, you have to come up with ways to motivate each other – such as acknowledging wins to be had before the primary goal is reached. We watched the share prices of the Australian firm AJ Lucas (Cuadrilla’s parent company), and celebrated when they fell after delays and bad press brought about by our activities at its site. We rejoiced in every new face who joined the movement (and those people who returned again and became familiar faces). We danced, sang and shared food.
The hardest thing about activism is stepping into it. Who would sanely choose to live in opposition to a more powerful force? To knowingly arrive each day accepting that arrest, violence and abuse are a certainty? We used to give public talks to communities at risk of fracking, and I called the talk The Unwelcome Gift of Truth. I hated informing residents of what was to come, because I knew the vast majority would find it impossible to ignore the risks their families would face; that they too would fall through the door marked “activism”, and maybe, like me, be unable to find the exit. How do you “unknow” the facts? How can anyone simply stand aside and trust that the government or its toothless regulatory bodies will keep us safe from this industry?
Yesterday, my fellow anti-fracking Nana, Anjie Mosher, told me: “Although the government has almost removed all right to protest, I will still peacefully stand up to do whatever I can to slow down and stop this industry before irreparable damage is done.” I’ll be doing the same, and I hope you will too.