We heard an awful lot about the recent protests around the proposed drilling in Balcombe Sussex (even though the operators were not proposing to frack). But we’ve heard very little of similar events in Salford, Manchester, where I-Gas are drilling.
There is certainly local concern, whipped up by hard-core, anti-industry, anti-capitalist protesters, some of them apparently moved up from Balcombe. When you read the black propaganda put out by these people, you can hardly blame local residents for their fears. It’s time to get the truth out there: that fracking has been going on for many decades, without significant problems, that it’s safe, and that in America it has had a dramatically positive effect on jobs, prosperity, tax revenues, balance of payments.
I was in MansfieldPennsylvania recently, where the town has been transformed by shale gas. House prices are going up, as the new industry brings people and money and new businesses into the area.
These protesters are causing huge problems in Salford for I-Gas and their subcontractors. It is taking up to four hours to get trucks down the short access road to the site, as the protesters march, and sing, and wave banners and placards in front of vehicles.
There has been a large police presence devoted to keeping the peace and preventing violent confrontations, but they seem to be doing very little to ensure the right of unimpeded access to workers going about their legitimate business. I’m told that the police draw attention to the Human Rights Act, and in particular the right to protest and demonstrate. We all support that right. But it doesn’t include the right to obstruct the highway.
There is an argument that as the protesters are milling about and not (for example) sitting in the road, they are not strictly “obstructing” the highway, but simply exercising their right to protest. But this is mere semantics. If the truck can’t drive down the road at a reasonable speed, then the road is being obstructed. The police should ask the protesters to make way, and if they fail to do so, should remove them.
The policing operation is reportedly costing £40,000 a day (and the company has been obliged to spend £150,000 on a protester-proof fence). The police have recently decided (perhaps reasonably) that they can no longer afford this cost, and have said they’ll provide their services only one day a week — so all truck traffic will have to come that day. Better than no access at all, but this imposes huge logistical constraints and costs on the operators — just as the protesters want.
It gets worse. The agitators at Salford seem to have taken a page out of the extreme animal rights playbook. Executives of companies involved, and even some workers, have received threatening and intimidating phone calls. “We have your address. We know where your wife and your children are, and their schools”. In several cases there have been direct death threats. The police have taken these threats seriously, and offered security advice. But so far as I know, no arrests have been made.
The protesters want to make exploratory drilling so difficult, threatening and expensive that the operators will give up and go away. They want to prevent investment in the industry. And unless the government gets serious about it, there’s a real risk they’ll succeed. These ideologically-committed radicals are not so much campaigning against fracking as against jobs, investment and growth; against secure and affordable energy. They are campaigning for poverty and blackouts, and against economic recovery.
We should be thankful for small mercies. Cameron and Osborne speak out very clearly about the importance of the shale gas opportunity for our economy. But talking isn’t enough. Cameron should be telling the Home Secretary that a vital national interest is at stake here. The police must clear the way for the work to proceed, and the ringleaders amongst the protesters must be physically removed, given court orders requiring them to stay away from shale gas sites, and if necessary detained until the work is complete. The other part of the solution (and it is necessary in economic terms anyway) is to have dozens of drilling sites on the go at once. I suspect the hard core of protesters are simply too few to disrupt more than a coupe of sites at once.
The agitators are calling for “Frack Free Manchester”. If they’re successful, it may well be Jobs-Free Manchester and Electricity-Free Manchester as well.