BALCOMBE, ENGLAND – This might seem a bizarre place for a battle over energy policy in Britain.
A quaint village with a single pub, a well-attended tea room and a population of about 2,000, Balcombe has become the focal point of a heated debate over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which Prime Minister David Cameron hopes will revolutionize the country’s energy industry.
“Frack off” read hand-painted signs held aloft along a leafy road leading to Lower Stumble, a wooded field a half a kilometer south of where the drilling company Cuadrilla Resources recently erected a rig.
Although Cuadrilla is, at this point, only drilling an exploratory test well, worries 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 with explosives 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, which kicked off Tuesday on the sprawling local estates.
Led by the British government, supporters of fracking have gazed across the Atlantic at the shale gas revolution gripping the United States and ushering in a new era of lower power bills, energy security and new jobs. They say that, if properly regulated, fracking is safe and 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-kilometer 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 22-meter-tall drilling rig.
The protesters arrived about two months ago and have drawn praise from celebrity backers 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 39 billion cu. meters of shale gas in northern England alone — 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 here 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 in the U.K.
Cuadrilla officials are keen to stress that they are merely drilling an exploratory well. They emphasize that they have complied with local planning and environmental requests, and that if they did 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 opposed fracking. But in August, 60 villagers published a letter saying that the technology should be accepted and that protesters should leave their “hitherto beautiful road verges.”
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 caused the government to roll back its road-building program.
Alastair Harper, a spokesman with Green Alliance, a think tank, said there was huge concern in the environmental community that Britain’s newfound gusto for fracking would scare off investors in renewable technologies who were 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. He’s picked a side, and that’s quite alarming,” he said.
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 George Osborne, the finance minister, described as “the most generous for shale in the world.”
But 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,” said Paul Ekins, a professor of energy and environment policy at University College London, “the qualities of the countryside are precious to people, and when they feel it’s threatened, they react quite strongly.”