Hundreds converge on Balcombe as fracking protests continue

Protesters have vowed to continue after Caudrilla announces plans to scale back their operation

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of demonstrators have arrived at an anti-fracking protest camp in West Sussex on Saturday, swelling numbers on the second day of a proposed six day protest.

Police and the protest organisers No Dash for Gas anticipate up to 1,000 activists joining the anti-fracking demonstrations at the Balcombe camp as it emerged earlier today that the cost of policing the operation has risen to nearly £750,000.

Demonstrators will join the six-day Reclaim the Power Camp on the outskirts of the West Sussex countryside, which has become the epicentre of fracking protests since energy firm Cuadrilla prepared to drill for oil at the site.

Groups of protesters are due to march south from Balcombe to the Cuadrilla site on Sunday afternoon.

Sussex police are bolstering their number with officers from ten other forces from around the country.

A 23-year-old man was arrested on Saturday on suspicion of a public order offence, after threats were made to a local landowner who asked a group camped on land close to the drilling site to leave. This brings to 46 the total number held since the protests sprang up in the area three weeks ago.

Anti-fracking campaigners were bolstered by a well publicised visit from fashion designer Vivienne Westwood on Friday, who expressed her solidarity with protesters. Ms Westwood told the crowd: "I'm anti-fracking and I'm here to protest. There has been no debate. They are trying to rush this thing through, for what?"

"I'm sure it's bad and the only people who are going to benefit from it is this energy company….They all have vested interests. It's a kind of club….Who do they [the government] think they are when I would say most of the country is really against fracking, particularly at this point in time, when we don't know what's at stake," she said.

Campaigners argue test drilling by Caudrilla could lead to hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, but the company has said it is unlikely to turn the site into a fossil fuel production area.

The controversial method of fracking involves high pressure liquid being pumped deep underground to split shale rock and release gas supplies.

Opponents of fracking have highlighted concerns about potential water contamination and environmental damage, as well as small-scale earthquakes.

Caudrilla has now scaled back its operation on the advice of Sussex Police amid fears of unrest after police revealed the protests, which began last month, have so far cost taxpayers three quarters of a million. Officers from 10 other forces have been drafted in to assist.

Some Balcombe residents have expressed anger towards the disruptions created by the protesters, arguing they are not representative of the community.

But Ewa Jasiewicz, of anti-fracking group No Dash for Gas, said: “We are hoping to mobilise the massive public opinion that is opposed to fracking and to fossil fuel and is looking for cheap, sustainable, clean energy.

“It's in all of our interests to have that and it's possible to achieve this. The obstacles to this are political and not technical.

“Fracking our earth and industrialising our countryside is not the answer. In fact it's going to exacerbate climate change and it's going to crash our carbon reduction targets.”

She said activists have a “working relationship” with the farmer who owns the land on which the camp was being set up.

But Richard Ponsford, who owns Sidney Farm where the camp is, said the activists came on his land without his permission.

Mr Ponsford, 59, said: “About three or four vans came on to the field and they spent about three hours barricading the field in.

“I certainly did not give my permission. There is no way I would have allowed them in at all.”

Balcombe has been thrust into the spotlight as the debate surrounding fracking has intensified, with disputed claims that it could cause environmental harm and bring down energy bills.

David Cameron has insisted the whole country should accept fracking, claiming it will attract “real public support” when the benefits, such as potentially cutting energy bills, are explained.

The Prime Minister also claimed a thriving shale-gas industry could create tens of thousands of jobs.

He sought to play down fears about the environmental dangers posed by fracking, claiming there was “no evidence” that it would cause contamination of water supplies or other damage if properly regulated.

Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, said: “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.

Additional reporting by PA