Inside the anti-frackers' protest camp
The controversy over fracking on the Fylde looks set to continue throughout the coming year.
Pro-fracking groups have pointed the finger at campaigners from outside the county who they claim are “professional” protesters using new tactics of “harassment” and “intimidation”.
But the local campaigners who have been fighting the shale gas exploration plans for years have said outside protesters are welcome as long as protests remain peaceful and lawful.
An anti-fracking camp has sprung up at the Whitehills Business Park a short distance away from the Little Plumpton shale gas exploration drill site.
Smoke from a camp fire drifted lazily into the late afternoon sky of a cold February day as the group of around 20 environmental campaigners prepared to settle in for the night after a day’s protesting.
Members had been down to the Preston New Road site to carry out “slow-walks” in front of Cuadrilla’s delivery trucks, delaying them by up to 15 minutes as a token protest as they take supplies to the site where preparations are being made for a well pad which will see four deep bore-holes drilled down into the Bowland Shale to test for gas.
It is an agreed protest procedure with the police and Cuadrilla, and has been regularly carried out by the protesters at Preston New Road since the work began last month.
But some had also been to the nearby Travis Perkins depot to protest about the company supplying the fracking site and had obstructed the entrance during the morning.
That followed similar protests at a supplier in Bolton and at Moores Readymix in St Annes – both companies have since said they are not supplying the site following the action.
These protests have attracted criticism. Some thinking things are going too far. Some pointing fingers at the outsiders highlighting previous “unsavoury” behaviour and highlighting the arrests made when four campaigners locked themselves together earlier this month to stop vehicles entering the fracking site.
But the camp is also getting support from some locals, with an elderly couple bringing a box full of bread and food to the group in the tents, make-shift shelters, caravans huddled close to the B&Q building near an area of open, marshy ground.
Another couple turned up bringing hot food for the campers as they broke up old pallets for firewood.
Coun Miranda Cox, from Kirkham Town Council was at the makeshift camp, to support the protesters.
She said: “I am involved because fracking will affect everyone. It is a local issue with global impact.
“Communities have to stand up and protect themselves from the creeping nature of this industry.
“I am concerned about the health implications and the environment but it is the way it has been imposed on Lancashire, which voted against it, that really opened my eyes.
“I have been on the roadside nearly every day since the work at Preston New Road started.
“I feel that this talk about locals and outsiders is a non-issue.
“It is a global issue – we all live on this planet, the fracking sites may be local for us but fracking could spread to hundreds of communities across the country and global warming is an international issue.
“I have not seen any violence. Everyone has different ways of expressing their opinions and protesting. For some it is writing letters or emails, for others it is waving placards, for others it is direct action. It may take a combination of all of those to raise awareness of this issue and make an impact.
“The talk of intimidation is being used to create an impression, to make it all seem unlawful.”
She agreed that they would like to prevent Cuadrilla from drilling the wells and test-fracking for gas but she said the protest at the exploration company’s suppliers was as much about raising awareness with them of the issue and showing how local people did not support fracking.
She added: “It will not create the jobs people have been claiming. A study in Australia showed that for every one job fracking creates, around 14 are lost in other sectors such as tourism or farming. There is no social licence for fracking here in Lancashire – we are just being used as an experiment.
“I think it is marvellous people are coming here to support us and so do other local people. We have seen many people come to this camp to drop off food and supplies and the number of people honking their horns as they pass on the road is great.”
Ann, from Bury, said she was a healthcare worker who was now self employed and who was working at weekends and nights so she could come to the camp in the day time to offer support and herbal medicine to those who needed it.
She said: “My husband works too and we have been involved in the anti-fracking movement for about three years.
“There are shale gas licences in the Bury, Bolton and Radcliffe areas too and we realise that if we are to stop it we have to help here in Blackpool first.
“Lancashire has to be united against this, it is important the we all stick together.
“I don’t want people’s health affected and the future of our children affected by this industry. Local companies, here and in Bolton, have been supplying Cuadrilla’s well pad construction so we have been protesting at their sites to make our issue known and to raise awareness.
“I am a healthcare professional and I have seen research into fracking and the health concerns that are appearing in America. I don’t want our children to be affected by chemicals in the air and the water.”
“Lion”, from Croydon, explained why he had come to the site to spend cold nights in a small tent to be close to the Little Plumpton site.
He said: “I was an IT professional, but I have given my career up and my life aspirations because this is so important.
“People should read the OCI report The Sky’s Limit to understand why it is vital that we keep fossil fuels in the ground.
“We should not have any more infrastructure, exploration, no new fossil fuels exploitation because it will make climate change worse and result in human tragedy around the world.
“The companies which have caused this problem should be responsible for turning it all around.”
He had joined the camp a couple of days ago but had been at other environmental protests in recent months.
He said: “I have come to offer any help I can. People have to be made aware of the dangers of this industry and about what is happening here near Blackpool.
“We are here to raise awareness and protest. If that means walking slowly in front of lorries then so be it.
“We are passionate about opposing fracking. Air and water are more important than income and profit.
“Fracking can lead to fugitive emissions of methane from under ground and methane as a greenhouse gas is 80 times worse than CO2.
“Protesting is not something I want to do. It’s something I feel I have to do. I don’t want to live like this. I could be earning £30 an hour as an IT specialist but this is important.”
Gadget, aka Benjamin Deevoy, has been at the site for a couple of weeks.
He said although he was from “down south” he had lived in Blackpool for a third of his life and used to work in corporate hospitality at Blackpool Football Club when the team was in the Premier League.
He said: “It was a great job, I really enjoyed it. I even served drinks to Alex Ferguson at Bloomfield Road one time. Fracking is not a safe industry. It is not easy to get that gas out of the ground like you see in the USA with oil and those nodding donkey pumps.
“Fracking involves drilling deep and pumping in water and chemicals at pressure. It causes earth tremors and pollution. I am here to protect the aquifers and the local ecology.”
Asked about whether the protests had become too intimidatory, he said the protesters were dressed in combat fatigues and scarves because they were cheap clothing , hard wearing and kept them warm in winter.
He added: “It is a necessity to be here and stop it. We do not want to be unlawful, but the protests will carry on.
“There is a lot of positive energy here at the camp. People have come from a lot of different places, but we have had local people giving us hot food and support. A little girl came the other day, Ruby aged six, and drew a lovely rainbow on my caravan.
“We are in high spirits and morale is high because of that local support.”
The following day a man answering his description was arrested at the Preston New Road site as the contractors were trying to putout their daily placed traffic management system.
A police spokesman said: “A 31-year-old man from Blackpool was arrested on suspicion of an offence under Section 241 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act.”
But local campaigners came to his defence saying the arrest was completely unecessary.
A spokesman for the Preston New Road Action Group said: “The PNR protection activists are completely astounded by today’s abuse of police powers.
“He is one of our most ardent supporters and has been involved with the anti-fracking campaign since it started in the UK.
“He is incredibly well-versed in legal process and would definitely have not overstepped the mark.
“There will most certainly be repercussions because of this. Expect lock-ons in the very near future!”
But supporters of the shale gas industry, who say it will provide energy security, jobs and a boost to the economy through taxes, have criticised the protesters for their tactics which they say are disruptive.
A spokesman at Lancashire For Shale said: “Cuadrilla has obtained all the relevant legal permissions it needs in order to now advance its shale gas exploration plans here in Lancashire, and we are pleased to see it starting to do just that.
“It should be allowed to get on with its work while creating new economic opportunities for businesses across the county, but hardened activists from outside the area have spent the last few weeks trying to prevent it from doing so by apparently harassing and intimidating local businesses that have been supplying the Preston New Road site.
“While we fully respect people’s right to peaceful protest, we do not believe that local companies should be deterred from seeking work in the shale gas supply chain by activists that take things too far and cross the line from acceptable protest to something altogether more sinister.”
Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, said they were concerned about what many members of the business community saw as an escalation of protests.
She said: “It is quite wrong on all counts to intimidate, harass, bully and disrupt small, local firms who are simply getting on with their daily lawful business and keeping their employees in jobs.
“It is outrageous that such appalling intimidatory tactics being employed from a small group of coordinated cross border activists who come from outside our region are preventing local businesses from benefiting from the significant opportunities afforded from this industry.
“Should the intimidation continue at this level, I fear the local supply chain will lose out to organisations operating outside the area.
“The police must at the very least adopt a firmer line against activists who are causing danger on the highways and to those who are taking direct action that prevents businesses trying to get on with their job.”