More than 100 protesters against fracking company Cuadrilla’s exploratory drilling programme in Balcombe must vacate the area by nine o’clock on Tuesday morning after being served with an eviction order this afternoon.
The six-week protest outside a potential fracking site in the West Sussex village was dealt a blow as a representative of the county council, flanked by bailiffs, visited the camp along the grass verges of the London Road with the order.
“You must cease your occupation of the land before 9am Tuesday 10 September. If you do not comply with this Notice the Council will institute proceedings against you for possession of the said land without further notice,” the order read.
The protesters were due to meet last night to determine how to respond. Balcombe village resident Kathryn McWhirter said: 'We are horrified at the treatment of these dedicated people who have been here with our blessing for weeks now, helping us to protect our countryside, our health, our water, our air. The council is not acting today on behalf of the majority of residents of our village.'
Keith Taylor, the Green Party MEP for the South East, said: “It’s astounding that the same West Sussex County Council which gave test permits to fracking firm Cuadrilla has now served an eviction notice on peaceful protesters….It makes you wonder who WSCC is really representing.”
A spokesman for the council confirmed it is “to remove people, roadside tents, canopies and caravans on the B2036 London Road”.
“Our action is designed to protect all road users including the public on the verges and passing motorists. It is purely and simply about road safety and also keeping the public highway open,” he said.
“This is not about removing the right to peaceful protest. The Council and Police are establishing a defined area where peaceful protest will be facilitated,” he added.
However, locals said they were puzzled that the council waited six weeks before deciding that the roadside protest posed a health risk. They speculated that it was motivated by concerns that the protesters could make it very difficult for Cuadrilla to remove its equipment from the site when it ceases the first stage of its exploration programme towards the end of the month.
The latest development at Balcombe came as a rift over shale gas was exposed at the heart of the Coalition as the Energy Secretary flatly contradicted David Cameron’s recent claim that fracking would reduce energy prices in the UK.
In a speech to the Royal Society, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey sought to overturn a number of myths he said had grown around shale gas. These included claims that UK production had the potential to drive down energy bills because that has been the experience in the US.
“It’s far from clear that UK shale gas production could ever replicate the price effects seen in the US. The situation is different here,” Mr Davey said, arguing that geology, population, environmental regulations and planning laws all favoured production in the US over the UK.
But the main reason gas prices in the UK are unlikely to follow those in the US - where a fracking boom has driven them down to well below British levels – comes down to the laws of supply and demand, Mr Davey explained.
“The US has a closed gas market – massive increases in supply naturally affect prices. We are part of the European market. We source energy from far and wide. And we compete against others for the supply. And gas produced in the UK is sold into this market,” he said.
“When UK gas production in the North Sea was at its highest earlier this decade, UK and continental gas prices were still closely linked and fairly similar. North Sea didn’t significantly move UK prices – so we don’t expect UK shale production alone to have any effect,” Mr Davey added.
His comments directly addressed and undermined claims by the prime minister that shale gas could drive down energy prices in the UK as it had done in the US.
“Even if we only see a fraction of the impact shale gas has had in America, we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country,” Mr Cameron wrote in the Daily Telegraph last month.
Separately last month, the prime minister said: “I think we would be making a big mistake if we did not think hard about how to encourage fracking and cheaper prices right here in the UK. If you look at what’s happening in American with the advent of shale gas and fracking…their gas prices are half the level of ours.”
In questions after his speech today, Mr Davey insisted that he and the prime minister shared the same opinion on all aspects of fracking, including its potential impact on price. “I’ve been clear that if there is extra supply it puts downward pressure on prices,” Mr Davey said.
However, while Mr Davey said in his speech that “we might see downward pressures on gas prices strong enough to offset fast rising demand”, the scenario he was outlining was contingent on “huge Europe-wide shale gas production boosting supply”. By contrast, Mr Cameron’s vision of falling prices is achieved solely through UK production.
Asked if there were any differences of opinion between the Energy Secretary and the Prime Minister over fracking, Mr Davey replied: “There isn’t any.”
Mr Davey’s comments echo those made last week by Lord Stern, author of the hugely influential Stern review on the financial implications of climate change. He called Mr Cameron’s claim that fracking will bring down energy prices as “baseless”.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a highly controversial practice in which oil and gas is released from shale by blasting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the rock. It has been linked to a host of environmental hazards, including water pollution and earth tremors.
Despite casting doubt on potential price implications, Mr Davey said shale gas had tremendous potential to boost the British economy by creating jobs and tax revenues, to improve the country’s energy security and, being the cleanest of the fossil fuels, could provide “a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal”.
He said that “with the right safeguards in place the net effect on national emission from UK shale gas production will be relatively small when compared to the use of other sources of gas.”
“UK shale gas can be developed sensibly and safely, protecting the local environment, with the right regulation.”
However, he warned that “shale gas is no quick fix and no silver bullet….we can’t bank on shale gas to solve all our energy challenges, today or in this decade. And in the next decade, shale, by itself, will not come close to solving even our basic energy resource security challenge,” Mr Davey said.