Attending the "Camp Frack" event in Lancashire in May was heartening because, after our efforts over the last few years, things are starting to take-off. There is a real buzz in the movement as people get informed, network with other groups around Britain/the world, and pressure both the government and the energy lobby to justify the wild claims being made about unconventional gas.
A weekend in early May saw a gathering of "unconventional gas" activists from across Britain. Despite the rain and gales we set up in a field near Southport for a weekend of speeches, workshops and fun. Organised by the Manchester Trades Council and the Campaign Against Climate Change, it was also significant because environmentalists were working closely with trades unionists to promote the alternatives to the government's "fossil-fool" policies.
Over the last three years the movement has developed a strong case against the unconventional gas industry, and the presentations and speeches over the weekend directly challenge the claims made by the industry's supporters in the government and business lobby. This confidence in our case has also brought a much clearer focus to the work of the movement. For example, rather like the issue of nuclear power, unconventional gas looked set to split the environment movement. There was an assumption that natural gas was cleaner than coal, and so some supported unconventional gas because they believed it reduced coal-burning. Such assumptions expose the reliance of this debate upon a heavily lobbied and partisan media for their information and is something that, with the wealth of information available, we can demonstrate is factually wrong.
Camp Frack was also attended by activists from Australia, where these processes have been operating for a decade now, and they shared their valuable knowledge and experience with us. Not only are Australian activists further along in developing a responses to the harm these developments create, the Australian media have also done a far more responsible job in investigating and highlighting the damage caused by these processes. As a result the Australian unconventional gas industry has been on the retreat following recent grassroots protests such as the "lock the gate" campaign.
Today, from the USA to Canada and Australia, there is plenty of official and objective information on the impacts of unconventional gas extraction. Unfortunately the work of scientists and expert groups which contradict the political and industrial lobby's statements on unconventional gas are rarely explored in Britain. In contrast to what we see in the media here, the public are very surprised when they see what the rest of the world knows about these processes. For example, in 2012 the United Nations Environment Programme concluded that
Hydrologic fracking may result in unavoidable environmental impacts even if [unconventional gas] is extracted properly, and more so if done inadequately. Even if risk can be reduced theoretically, in practise many accidents from leaky or malfunctioning equipment as well as from bad practises are regularly occurring.
This contradicts the UK government, which has been hiding behind the statements of the Royal Society and others, that shale gas and fracking are safe if, "operational best practices [are] implemented and enforced through strong regulation".
Again, sharing information with Australian activists has produced great benefits on the "regulation" issue. Dart Energy recently closed its Australian facilities in response to highly effective local protests, publicly stating that it is coming to Britain because our liberalised regulatory process is more favourable to their operations. For example, at Dart's operations in Scotland the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency allow them to monitor their own plant. It's also from one of Dart's sites near Canonbie that we've received the first reports in Britain about methane leaking into local water supplies. So how can we ensure that there will be no problems here if there are already problems in Australia where the regulations are more strict?
The challenge for the movement now is to use the evidence we've gathered to publicly expose the corporate-sponsored spin and misinformation which has hijacked Britain's energy debate. And to that end we've got some testing times ahead. Scotland, Sussex and the Lancashire-Cheshire area are likely to see extraction sites developed soon. Lord Browne, government minister and chairman of Lancashire driller Cuadrilla, has said they will invest "whatever it takes" to develop unconventional gas here. And David Cameron has just replaced his pro-gas energy and climate advisor with a UKIP-supporting climate change denier.
However, the unconventional gas companies have described the coming year as "make or break" for the industry in Britain and so there's everything to play for! And perhaps that's also why we see pro-industry figures, such as former Tory minister Peter Lilley, launching attacks on environmentalists over unconventional gas developments, trying to poison the public's perception of the arguments against current energy policy.
After Camp Frack, I'm looking forward to challenging the unconventional gas industry and their political supporters. It's not just that we can prove they are factually wrong on so many points. For me, Camp Frack demonstrates that we have the capability to take these people on and, as the Australian experience shows, win the public debate.