Fracking and the Forest – guest blog by Owen Adams

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Q. What does campaign group Frack Off Our Forest, and the latest Star Wars and Harry Potter films have in common?

A. They all feature heroes battling dark forces in a beautiful forest.

 

I inhabit, and cherish, the The Forest of Dean where these films were made. Ironically, in the same week the tourism industry sought to capitalise on the Forest of Dean’s starring role in Star Wars, the Government quietly announced it had granted licences to frack under this verdant paradise; leaving us locals to engage in fighting a truly dark force – the oil and gas industry.

This end-times industry has a stranglehold on the Government: for the past two years, the Government has packed its Treasury, Cabinet, environment and energy departments with ecocidal corporate insiders.

In the meantime, our elected illustrious leaders claim to be doing their bit by signing a deal to reduce global warming from the current disastrous trajectory of a 4% rise, to ‘well below’ 2% of pre-industrial levels.

CAT’s CEO, Adrian Ramsay, had this to say after the Paris talks:”To have a reasonable chance of meeting the [well below] 2°C goal, all investment in new fossil fuels must be halted now – both coal and fracking. Public funds spent subsidising fossil fuels should be redirected into renewable energy and used to support poorer majority world countries to build the clean energy infrastructure they need.”

The Government have cut spending on flood defences, slashed incentives for renewable energy projects and while wind turbines and solar panels can be prevented from taking root in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it’s now legally acceptable to frack underneath them.

It is hard to engage people in battling this imminent threat. In 2014, I and a concerted group of activists were opposing the Infrastructure Bill (now an Act, a law) which makes it compulsory to recover oil and gas beneath our land where it is found, and allows it to take place anywhere and everywhere.

In Lancashire, the testing ground for shale gas fracking, a campaign by “the Nanas” managed to persuade the county council to turn down planning applications. The Government’s response was (as per the Infrastructure Act 2015) for the minister to call in those decisions. The latest Government initiative to get fracking underway is to issue secondary legislation (we received this news on Christmas Eve) which means no public need to be notified nor planning consent sought for the first stage of gas exploration – namely environmentally damaging seismic testing involving vibrating plates and/or explosives, and drilling boreholes and monitoring drinking water.

So the fracking exploration firm, newly established South Western Energy, could arrive at any time stealthily to start exploring for coalbed methane (CBM) – their stated primary objective.

Government and the Forest’s local MP – Mark Harper, chief whip – will doubtlessly try to tell us that CBM does not mean fracking. The Government definition of fracking is hydraulic fracturing which uses at least 1,000 cubic metres of fluid (a mix of water, sand and chemicals) pumped into rock. CBM involves pumping water out of the coal seams. Only if the gas doesn’t flow out naturally once the coal has been “dewatered” is the fracking technique used – and because it typically only uses 200 cubic metres of water, it isn’t subject to any restrictions. It can also take place just 200 metres below ground, rather than 1,000m (or 1,200m in ‘protected areas’) as for shale gas.

The gorgeous woodland hollows as seen in the new Star Wars film are in the private showcase Puzzlewood, on the edge of the Forest of Dean. The hollows are unique natural phenomena called scowles and were used since pre-Roman times to extract iron ore from close to the surface. Some reckon that Tolkien, involved in archaeological digs in a nearby set of scowles, found his inspiration here for the Shire and Middle Earth’s battle against the dark forces of Mordor in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (though the forest scenes in the film were in New Zealand).

The scowles frame the Forest of Dean coalfield. Since ancient times, locals have had the right to “freemine” – a tradition that continues and is enshrined in law. But the law also allows freeminers to sell their gales (mining areas) to outsider capitalists – and this meant that between the 1780s and early 1960s, the Forest’s stability was undermined by colossal honeycombs created by a massive coal-mining industry.

These days, there is a push and pull between celebrating the Forest’s mining heritage and the continuing freemining of coal and stone. Old timers in the Forest, my own family included, remember spending their waking hours underground in order to earn a crust, preferable to starving. But a free market economy doesn’t let us hanker back to the old days of working-class camaraderie and full employment.

Gerwyn Williams, director of South Western Energy – and other fracking exploration entities Coastal Energy and UK Methane – is from the Bridgend area of South Wales. Williams’ background is in mining engineering – he worked for British Coal for more than 20 years. He witnessed the devastating impact of the end of the coal industry on South Wales communities.

He tried and failed to get CBM going in the Mendips, Somerset, but in his own backyard, he has found sympathetic councils waving aside protests and granting planning permission for CBM and shale gas exploration. Fractivists are currently on the alert for the arrival of machinery.

Williams may find less support for this approach in North Somerset, West Wiltshire and Dorset, where he has also been granted licences. For many of these licence blocks, Williams/ SW Energy has made a “firm commitment” to drill at least one well.

The argument that fracking is a “transitional” energy source, which – along with nuclear power – is essential for keeping the lights on until our renewables technology is up to the task, is a nonsense.

The Centre for Alternative Technology‘s flagship research project and report Who’s Getting Ready for Zero? robustly charts “over 100 research projects and programmes that demonstrate how we can reach very low or net zero emissions by the second half of the century with existing technology and without harming social or economic development”.

The Resilience Centre has calculated the Forest of Dean could produce 160% of its energy needs from renewable sources.

Even with the quite unprecedented achievement of the Forest of Dean District Council unanimously backing a motion to call on the Government not to issue fracking licences, the Government ignored it.

The most vociferous people against the Resilient Energy model of community renewables have been local gentry. UKIP, the Tories, the Greens, Labour and anarchists are mostly united against fracking.

While signing petitions, lobbying politicians and opposing planning applications should go on, the only way fracking will be stopped is by mass direct action. We are watching and waiting.

Meanwhile, the pursuit of profit continues while out of control climate change manifests as extreme weather events.

Join Frack Off Our Forest on Facebook here.

CAT’s latest research project, Making it Happen, explores the barriers to achieving a Zero Carbon future, at the rate required by the climate science. Join the Facebook page here.

Owen Adams is part of the campaign group Frack Off Our Forest.