Balcombe fracking protest widens: Second campsite opens as activists prepare to step up their campaign against shale gas exploration in Sussex

 

Balcombe, West Sussex

For a brief moment, it was a picture of peace. Smells of the previous night's extinguished fires mingled with fresh coffee and, despite a heavy police presence, Balcombe, the centre of a national debate over shale gas extraction, was calm yesterday.

But then a gentleman called "Peaceful Dan" was shoved in the back of a police van and tensions once again grew among the estimated 1,000 protesters, who have set up protest camps in West Sussex in opposition to the British oil and gas exploration firm Cuadrilla. The company is building a test well to enable it to take samples of rock from about 3,000ft below the picturesque South Downs.

Opposition to the works has been widespread, with both locals and protesters from around the country arriving at camps throughout the day yesterday. A second, newer camp to cater for the huge number of anti-fracking protesters expected tomorrow proved popular. It's situated about a mile away from the drilling site and has become known as the Reclaim the Power Camp.

Shortly before lunch yesterday cries of "Where's the legal adviser?" rang around near the site entrance. They were followed by: "They've taken Peaceful Dan!" Crowds of protesters rushed towards the entrance, encircling the police van he was sitting in.

Officers appeared to have snatched the campaigner from the roadside and bundled him into the van. They refused, when asked by The Independent on Sunday, to explain why they had detained him. Yesterday, Sussex Police declined to state how many arrests it had made.

One protester who asked not to be named said officers were deliberately attempting to provoke the activists, which the police deny. But the power of the protest has been significant. Last week, Cuadrilla announced it would suspend drilling in anticipation of tomorrow's protest, which could prove the biggest yet. Policing the protest has cost Sussex Police £730,000 so far.

By contrast, the costs to the protesters are relatively low. At the second campsite, cans of food, bread and fruit were piled in one corner, some of it donated from as far away as Manchester. An elaborate network of pipes had also been set up to provide fresh water. Meals cost just £2.

One activist, Graham Thompson, 39, said: "We're here to support the people of Balcombe who have been protesting against this for three weeks now – which is tough, camping by a roadside. They are the real heroes of this story; they've come here as a community and that's fantastic."

Fracking, which has been supported by David Cameron, is opposed by a range of figures, including the fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, who is among the campers at Balcombe. The opposition was joined by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) yesterday. It issued what it said was its first objections to fracking proposals over concerns that the drilling technique will harm wildlife. The charity said increasing oil and gas use would "scupper our chances" of meeting climate change targets.

The RSPB said that another Cuadrilla site, near Blackpool in Lancashire, could threaten pink-footed geese and whooper swans, as the drilling could cause disturbance to the birds.

"These are not just nimbys worried about house prices – there is a very real public disquiet about fracking," said Harry Huyton, the RSPB's head of climate and energy policy.

Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, said yesterday: "Cuadrilla's exploration work at Balcombe involves drilling a conventional oil well. External groups protesting against hydraulic fracturing at Balcombe do so without any work proposal from Cuadrilla to judge."

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