Where do these fracking protesters think energy is going to come from?

If oil and gas are there in the South, then let the country benefit

Share

It’s an unlikely coalition.

Bianca Jagger, Natalie Hynde – daughter of the rock star Chrissie – and the odd grey-suited City commuter (“Lloyd’s broker says no”) are marching as one. Their common cause: to obstruct and if possible prevent the drilling for oil near the West Sussex town of Balcombe. The slogans on some of the placards are less polite than that of the Lloyd’s man (and also less literate): “Get the Frack out of Sussex” and “Frack you! You fracking frackers”.

Oddly enough, the exploratory well being drilled by the energy company Cuadrilla does not involve “hydraulic fracking” – the breaking open of tight petroliferous rock formations by high-pressure injections of water and surfactants. It’s a single six-inch diameter well down to a depth of 2,500 feet; and if the flow from it is good (by no means certain) then future production will not require “fracking” either.

Yet such technical details will not deflect the demonstrators, whether motivated by sentimental soil-worship or a more hard-headed concern about the effect of drilling on local property prices. They just believe passionately that it’s grossly inappropriate to have a major extractive industry doing its business in this lovely part of England, the High Weald. They believe it; but they are wrong.

I know a bit about this, as I have lived in the High Weald for the past 16 years. The water running past our house has a distinctive rusty colour – caused by high iron content in the clay subsoil. The Romans – being industrious fellows – started the iron-working industry in this part of England. This extractive process grew in size and scale as the demand for iron expanded, most notably for the manufacture of cannons and the balls which we fired at sundry European enemies (such as the Spanish Armada). In eyeshot as I write this stands a derelict mill which harnessed the stream to power the furnaces; behind me is one of the Wealden forests – Dallington –  which supplied the charcoal for smelting.

When I amble through it, I sometimes come across the hollows of the old charcoal pits. If I walk a little further, no more than a mile or two, I am at the heart of a still-active extractive operation, owned by British Gypsum. This land, while part of a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, contains the country’s largest reserve of calcium sulphate, used to make plasterboard. The local miners run a 24-hour operation, although there are now only about 100 of them, a tenth of their number during the peak years of drilling.

Their controlled explosions 300 or so feet below the surface are just the sort of practice which, if said to be new or proposed, would bring the righteous wrath of Bianca Jagger and Natalie Hynde down on us – and doubtless also demonstrations by City-bound commuter residents. Yet there is not the slightest blight on local property prices, even if those nearest the British Gypsum mine occasionally complain about noisy machinery, as the extracted rock is transported by conveyer belt and onwards via a dedicated railway (just as it has been since the 1880s). Further afield, nearer Tunbridge Wells, stood the vast Highbrooms Brickworks, where the rich reddish Wealden clay was fired to provide the basic physical structure of countless housing booms.

The point is that the High Weald was never more than marginal in what people seem to regard as the sole traditional role of the countryside – farming. Its contours and villages, now seen as purely bucolic, are in fact the legacy of a vibrant industrial past. As so often in the English landscape, what seems “natural” is in fact anything but. The visible structure of the Wealden communities, with their churches, post offices and filigree criss-crossing of roads, is the residual superstructure of the human exploitation of natural resources harnessed for the sole benefit of man: just like the oil and gas which Cuadrilla is working to find and develop.

Nowadays, of course, the High Weald of Kent, East Sussex and West Sussex, is no longer the industrial heart of the country – as it had been before the coal revolution. Now the great majority of working residents commute to their place of employment – London, most obviously. This is an energy-intensive process, especially if they are using cars to get to the “big smoke” – although trains also rely on electricity, which is overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels for its generation.

The City-commuting residents demonstrating (“Lloyd’s broker says no”) against the Balcombe oilwell are therefore singularly lacking in economic self-awareness. Their very way of life depends on cheap, secure and plentiful energy: exactly what Cuadrilla is in the business of providing. That used to mean coal – conveniently located, for the most part, hundreds of miles away from the London commuter belt. Yet if oil and gas (which incidentally produce much less Co2 than coal per unit of energy produced) are in plentiful supply down South, why should the country as a whole be denied its benefits? The outraged of Balcombe are put to shame by an 11-year-old local called Phoebe who told a visiting reporter that she was “for fracking” having “done a project on it” at Balcombe Primary School: “I want energy for television and internet”.

The protesters doubtless imagine – or would like us to imagine – that a gas or oilfield would somehow blight the entire region. They will dismiss as merely self-interested propaganda the insistence last week by Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan that 100 shale gas production sites of the sort his firm aims to build could produce enough to supply a third of the UK’s annual gas demand while occupying only “a total area of just two square kilometres”. Egan (who has received death threats from one especially outraged opponent of fracking) added that “suitably screened by trees, the sites would be invisible to passers-by”.

Hard though it might be for the likes of Bianca Jagger and Natalie Hynde to believe, this is the truth. If you doubt it, consider that the largest onshore oilfield in Europe has been discreetly situated in an area much more ecologically sensitive than the High Weald. The Wytch Farm oilfield, discovered by the British Gas Corporation in 1973 in the Purbeck district of Dorset, has production facilities hidden in a coniferous forest on the southern shore of Poole Harbour. Its reservoir – which at peak output in 1997 was producing an extraordinary 110,000 barrels of oil a day – extends below the exquisite Studland peninsula: so this monster of an oilfield has been inconspicuously exploited at the heart of a world heritage site, a designated area of outstanding natural beauty and of several nature reserves.

It should reassure anxious Balcombe residents who told reporters that “prices of homes here will inevitably go down here” that values around Poole Harbour have not been in the tiniest bit depressed by the presence of the Wytch Farm oil production facilities: indeed, apart from the stucco terraces of Kensington and Chelsea, this is the most expensive stretch of real estate in the whole country.

Besides, it would be fitting for the High Weald to get back to its old business.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick