Balcombe Fights the Power

Despite a broad sense of support for environmental causes, and having a solid faith that human activity has a dramatic impact on the world (incessantly affronted by denialists), today I think is the first time I’ve been motivated to write about it. News out of Balcombe, a village in the leafy county of West Sussex, is of concern, as oil and gas exploration firm Cuadrilla Resources have been given the go ahead to operate on the community’s doorstep. The local folk have motivated themselves, however, and their protest began yesterday by successfully blocking access to the site.

This case rings familiar with a great many confrontations between residents, local government and business, and there are a variety of interpretations. For the people it’s an emotional issue, their homes are faced with the prospect of significant and uninvited change and it can be easy to sympathise. The term ‘nimbyism’ technically applies in every case but isn’t inherently negative, with many legitimate grievances being easy to spot, including in my opinion the case of Balcombe. It would be worthwhile though, to first highlight the standard opposing arguments.

For the most part they are economic and apply right up and down the scale. Energy security and the cost of fuelling a nation is the imminent, if not already present, critical issue for the entire globe. Exploiting domestic resources is absolutely the most preferable option in political, financial and logistical terms. The national effect is lower fuel costs for the consumer, and given recent spiralling rises in the expense of driving a vehicle or heating a home this is hard to ignore. Even the specific local community would ostensibly benefit from increased revenue to public services and possibly even direct compensation for the price of industrial operations.

It’s easy to see why Balcombe is now forming another chapter in the never ending story, as two legitimate and thoroughly incompatible positions meet head on. Rural communities have every right to defend the sanctity of their homes, and whatever the economic upsides, they have to be respected. And it seems that despite a proactive and engaged effort by the Balcombe community to seek adequate protections, Cuadrilla Resources were still contracted to begin a heavy industrial process that is still actually enveloped in controversy. Fracking has recently been the environmental hot topic, with detractors arguing that it is insufficiently studied and probably worse for the environment than other extraction methods. See Josh Fox’s Gasland series.

This is no petty gripe. While the first phase of Cuadrilla’s work would be limited to exploratory measures, there is surely no doubt that if resources are found in profitable abundance the project would expand. Protest against this is essential and it’s admirable to see a healthy presence in West Sussex, as Balcombe risks becoming one of the early lost battles in an impending boom. Recent reports indicate that the UK has significant potential for fracking operations and we can fairly anticipate many more incidents like this. Current pushers of the energy agenda in government seem to be lost at sea in advancing the original coalition mandate to be ‘green’.

There is a concerning narrative developing in Westminster that just because renewable methods are less productive than burning stuff, to use the scientific phrase, they are a waste of time and we must instead plough ahead with completely exhausting every drop and scrap of fossil fuel before we have a serious look elsewhere. To paraphrase one protester from Balcombe, this is painfully short-sighted, and speaking for myself, due to the actual availability of clean energy options, smacks more than a little of entrenched industrial and economic interests.

I’m not completely partisan. I think it would be an interesting experiment to offer Balcombe an alternate green energy plan and see if they accept it. The thrust of their protest, and my primary reason for supporting it, is the environmental concern and effect of heavy industry on the community. It might seem arbitrary to plonk a wind farm there instead, but would certainly help vindicate the idea that this isn’t a question of snobbery and is genuinely about changing the future landscape with regards to energy. We should be watching Balcombe with interest.

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