Anger and blockades as fracking starts in UK for first time since 2011

Operations start at Lancashire site after protesters block entrance and nearby road

Fracking has begun in the UK for the first time since 2011 despite an attempt by protesters to blockade the entrance to the Lancashire site.

Activists from campaign group Reclaim the Power used a van to block the entrance to a site on Preston New Road near Blackpool for 12 hours from 4.30am on Monday, but the shale gas company Cuadrilla said all the equipment it needed to frack was already there and it had started the process by 1pm.

One protester climbed to the top of a scaffold and later locked his neck to it. Another locked herself to the base of the scaffold.

A spokesperson for Cuadrilla said: “Cuadrilla is pleased to confirm that it has started hydraulic fracturing operations at our Preston New Road shale gas exploration site. Hydraulic fracturing of both horizontal exploration wells is expected to last three months, after which the flow rate of the gas will be tested.”

Preston New Road has been a focal point for protests since October 2016, when the government overturned a decision by Lancashire county council and gave Cuadrilla consent to extract shale gas at two wells on the site.

Henry Owen, who was locked to the top of the scaffold, said it was important to continue demonstrating. “It’s absolutely vital because this industry has no social licence in the UK,” he said. “It’s being pushed through by government who don’t care about their commitments to take action on climate change.

“They’re not interested in what local communities have to say. After all democratic avenues have been exhausted over a seven-year campaign, there is a place for direct action to stop this industry.”

Owen said he was still hopeful campaigners could halt fracking – in which water and chemicals are injected into rocks at high pressure to extract gas – in the UK.

“This is the first site in the UK that might go into commercial production, although it’s still a long way off that and it’s many, many years behind schedule, and has cost [Cuadrilla] a lot of money,” he said. “I’ll be here for as long as I can to do as much as I can to stop this industry from getting started.”

The woman came down from the scaffolding shortly before 4.30pm. A short time later, after more than 12 hours on the platform, Owen was attached to a harness and removed by police, who used an electric saw to cut a lock around his neck.

In a separate protest less than half a mile away, two activists locked themselves together in the middle of the road at about 7am using a device made from chains and a metal barrel.

Police initially closed the road, a key route into Blackpool, before setting up a contraflow shortly after midday. After hours of sawing through the chains and metal, the pair were separated at about 12.30pm.

One of the protesters, Sadie Love, said she had taken direct action after talking to local parents: “There are women who have come to us crying because there is no proper safety plan for the evacuation of their children’s schools if something goes wrong.”

Another, Dave, from Preston, said he was not deterred by the prison sentences given to three protesters last month. “The fight against fracking is worth risking our liberty for. If it happens here, it will happen all over the country. That is why we are mobilising,” he said.

An anti-fracking protester holding a sign
A woman makes her feelings known outside the site. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian

A spokesperson for Lancashire constabulary said: “A 34-year-old woman and a 45-year-old man, both of no fixed address, have been arrested on suspicion of wilful obstruction of the highway.”

In a statement, Reclaim the Power said the action was a response to the government’s “green Great Britain week”, which it described as “a token attempt to hide a series of climate-wrecking decisions”.

Cuadrilla had hoped to start work on Saturday, a day after an environmental campaigner failed to halt the work at the high court, but the start date was postponed until Monday because of Storm Callum.

Lancashire county council turned down two planning applications from Cuadrilla in 2015 to frack on the Fylde coast, citing visual and noise impacts, but Sajid Javid, then the communities secretary, overruled it the following year.

Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Francis Egan, has said if fracking proves commercially viable, it will “displace costly imported gas with lower emissions, significant economic benefit and better security of energy supply for the UK”.

There were about 70 people at the site late on Monday morning. Jake Hooson, 29, who lives in nearby Warton, said: “There’s a bit of a smear campaign against the protesters, with people saying they aren’t locals or don’t have jobs. I’ve met a lot of locals.”

Cuadrilla first began fracking on the Fylde coast seven years ago, but suspended operations after a series of small tremors. Terry Robinson, a retired gas worker, felt the tremors from his home near the coast. “I was sat in an armchair at home on a very quiet and peaceful day, and the house started wobbling,” he said.

Claire Perry
The energy minister, Claire Perry, has criticised anti-fracking activists. Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Images

Responding to the commencement of fracking, he said: “It’s very depressing and disappointing. We were dreading it happening and it just seems a huge step backwards … and the strength of feeling against it is massive.

“I can’t comprehend why they’re trying to force it on us. I come down here every Monday [to protest] and I’ll continue to come down until it stops. I think most people will.”

The energy minister, Claire Perry, suggested last week that rules designed to halt fracking operations if they trigger minor earthquakes could be relaxed as the shale industry expands. Current regulations mean even very low levels of seismic activity require companies to suspend fracking.

Perry has also been critical of anti-fracking protesters. An appeal against the three activists’ prison sentences will be heard on Wednesday.


Frances Perraudin and Helen Pidd

The GuardianTramp

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