With its million-pound homes and leafy estates, the village of Balcombe hardly looks like a hotbed of environmental activism. But this community of fewer than 2,000 has suddenly become the latest epicentre of the global debate over fracking.
For the past week, Balcombe villagers have been waging war with Cuadrilla Resources Ltd., Britain's largest shale player, which is about to start test drilling in the area, hoping to extract oil from shale rock. Houses have been plastered with "Frack Off" signs, and dozens of people have lined the gates to the site, chanting, singing and trying to stop trucks from going in. Nearly two dozen people have been arrested.
The "Battle for Balcombe" has become a rallying cry for opponents of fracking everywhere as activists, celebrities and media have descended on the village, a short train ride south of London. Arrivals of serial, experienced veterans of the G20 demonstrations and the Occupy camp outside St. Paul's have turned this town into an eco-cause celebre.
Marina Pepper, a former journalist, local councillor and Playboy model, was escorted off the site this week.
Activist Simon Medhurst, a.k.a. Sitting Bull, who earlier this year delayed work on a new road by burrowing beneath it, is in the area, too. And then there is Bianca Jagger.
"It has been absolutely fantastic," said a beaming Ben Lucas, 21, who arrived in Balcombe from nearby Brighton and has been camping out with protesters since Thursday. A few minutes later, Mr. Lucas was hauled away by police after rushing a Cuadrilla truck.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the pumping of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into the rock to unlock energy. It has revolutionized the oil and gas industry, particularly in Canada and the United States, where previously uneconomical deposits have become viable. It has emerged as such a pivotal force in the energy markets that Saudi Arabia's billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal told the Wall Street Journal this week that it poses a threat to his kingdom's economy.
Shale gas and oil is still relatively new to Europe, but the concerns about fracking have become heated largely because the continent's dense population means drilling is almost always near a community. As a result, several countries have shied away from it.
France and Bulgaria have banned it though both countries sit on some of the largest shale-gas deposits in Europe. The German government has put off a decision on the technology until after elections in September amid mounting opposition, including concerns from beer producers who are worried about the water supply.
Britain has gone the other way and is pushing shale-gas development hard. The government recently announced generous tax breaks for producers and payments of around $160,000 per well to the communities affected. Those payments are a way for communities to share the benefits, the government said. Others see them as compensation.
"Shale gas has the potential to transform our future energy supply and bring significant economic benefits," George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in announcing the tax measures, which he added were the most generous in the world. "It could increase our energy security, support thousands of jobs and generate substantial tax revenue for the nation."
The debate has intensified with a report from the British Geological Survey last month which doubled the estimate of shale gas contained in northern England to 37.6 trillion cubic metres. If just 10 per cent of that could be extracted, it would be enough to supply the country's natural gas needs for 40 years based on current consumption.
That's enough for many to applaud the government for pressing ahead. Business groups point to the success of shale gas in the United States, which has driven down natural-gas prices and transformed the country into a potential gas exporter. Environmentalists argue the government's actions are short sighted and that other, safer, sources of energy should be developed. They point to a pair of minor earthquakes Cuadrilla caused at a site in northern England in 2011. The company was forced to shut down operations for months before the government permitted drilling to restart.
Cuadrilla insists it's only exploring the Balcombe site, and that if it did use fracking to tap the resource it would be done safely. That has not eased local concerns that it will contaminate the water supply and pollute the air.
If Balcombe is anything to go by, the opponents seem to be gaining support. Cuadrilla has been working on the project for several years, seeking various approvals and trying to convince the village that the drilling site, within walking distance of the tiny train station, won't even be noticed. The appeal hasn't worked. A poll taken by the parish council found that 82 per cent of residents opposed fracking. Many are concerned about the water quality, pollution and noise as giant trucks rumble through town.
Villagers like Karen German had never heard of fracking until Cuadrilla showed up and she began looking into the issue. "I am very worried about it," Ms. German said as she sat on a lawn chair outside the gates to Cuadrilla's drill site Monday with her nine-year old son, Rory. "My son has asthma. Who knows what the chemicals will do to him?"
Others, like Chris Stride, who was also at the gate Monday, take a more practical approach. Asked if he thought the protesting would stall Cuadrilla's operations, he replied: "No. But at least people will begin to realize what the problem is."