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BALCOMBE, ENGLAND — With its million-pound homes and leafy estates, the village of Balcombe hardly looks like a hotbed of environmental activism. But this community of fewer than 2,000 has suddenly become the latest epicentre of the global debate over fracking.
For the past week, Balcombe villagers have been waging war with Cuadrilla Resources Ltd., Britain’s largest shale player, which is about to start test drilling in the area, hoping to extract oil from shale rock. Houses have been plastered with “Frack Off” signs, and dozens of people have lined the gates to the site, chanting, singing and trying to stop trucks from going in. Nearly two dozen people have been arrested.
The “Battle for Balcombe” has become a rallying cry for opponents of fracking everywhere as activists, celebrities and media have descended on the village, a short train ride south of London. Arrivals of serial, experienced veterans of the G20 demonstrations and the Occupy camp outside St. Paul’s have turned this town into an eco-cause celebre.
Marina Pepper, a former journalist, local councillor and Playboy model, was escorted off the site this week. Activist Simon Medhurst, a.k.a. Sitting Bull, who earlier this year delayed work on a new road by burrowing beneath it, is in the area, too. And then there is Bianca Jagger.
“It has been absolutely fantastic,” said a beaming Ben Lucas, 21, who arrived in Balcombe from nearby Brighton and has been camping out with protesters since Thursday. A few minutes later, Mr. Lucas was hauled away by police after rushing a Cuadrilla truck.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the pumping of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into the rock to unlock energy. It has revolutionized the oil and gas industry, particularly in Canada and the United States, where previously uneconomical deposits have become viable. It has emerged as such a pivotal force in the energy markets that Saudi Arabia’s billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal told the Wall Street Journal this week that it poses a threat to his kingdom’s economy.
Shale gas and oil is still relatively new to Europe, but the concerns about fracking have become heated largely because the continent’s dense population means drilling is almost always near a community. As a result, several countries have shied away from it.
France and Bulgaria have banned it though both countries sit on some of the largest shale-gas deposits in Europe. The German government has put off a decision on the technology until after elections in September amid mounting opposition, including concerns from beer producers who are worried about the water supply.
Britain has gone the other way and is pushing shale-gas development hard. The government recently announced generous tax breaks for producers and payments of around $160,000 per well to the communities affected. Those payments are a way for communities to share the benefits, the government said. Others see them as compensation.
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