After the government’s sudden u-turn over fracking, Counterfire’s Katherine Connelly spoke to Allan Todd, a Green Left member and Extinction Rebellion activist, about the cynical politics behind the announcement, the importance of the anti-fracking campaign and how we can ensure the victory isn’t as short-lived as the election campaign
Please could you tell us about why there is such widespread opposition to fracking?
Even before attempts at fracking began in the UK, there was plenty of evidence from fracking in the US and Australia to ensure there’d be serious opposition to fracking here. These range from the pollution of local water sources by the toxic mix of chemicals used in fracking; the air pollution arising from permitted discharges into the atmosphere; the earth tremors which invariably accompany fracking; the massive increase in HGV traffic in rural areas; and water insecurity because of the massive use of water needed to frack. In addition to these mainly local objections, there is of course the understanding that over 80% of all remaining fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, if we are going to keep the rise of the average global temperature below 2C, in order to avoid uncontrollable and catastrophic Climate Breakdown - not only does fracking gas and oil release yet more carbon into the atmosphere, it also releases significant amounts of methane - which has a more powerful impact than carbon on global warming.
What has been involved in organising ‘Green Mondays’ at Preston North Road?
A lot of work, is the short answer! I organised the first ‘Green Monday’ on 14 August 2017 - but it all really began for me in June 2015. Although I live in Keswick (Cumbria), I was one of many people who, for one week, protested outside the offices of Lancashire County Council in Preston, in an attempt to persuade councillors to reject Cuadrilla’s two applications to frack in the county. My view was that I’d rather stop it in Lancashire, than wait for it to come to Cumbria. When the majority of councillors voted to reject both applications, we thought the matter had been put to rest. However, in October 2016, the Tory government overturned the decision, thus giving Cuadrilla the go-ahead. Once the project began, local opposition was quick to get off the ground and, in April 2017, I started to go down to Preston New Road to join the protests. In July 2017, Reclaim The Power organised a whole month of ‘Rolling Resistance’ - well-attended non-violent direct action protests, involving sit-downs, lock-ons and, of course, the fantastic ‘sport’ of truck-surfing! As it was coming to an end, I suggested to some North West Green Party people that we should seek to do the same for August. It was felt we didn’t have enough resources to cover a whole month, so I suggested one day a week for the next few months, and was given the go-ahead, and I decided on ‘Green Mondays’.
From the start, they were always intended as ‘green’ in the very broadest sense: not just Green Party, but Greenpeace (I’m also a Greenpeace activist), Friends of the Earth - and any other concerned environmentalist individuals and groups. As this was before the very restrictive injunction of June 2018, I thought if we got ‘name’ speakers, we’d get bigger numbers of protesters - which, despite the increasing police presence, would allow successful non-violent direct action. We attracted a wide array of speakers including political activists and politicians which helped to boost the number of protestors involved. This wide spread of speakers and organisations was quite deliberate - as I’ve long believed that all our various struggles have one thing in common: in almost every case, we come up against the same neoliberal system. So, if we want to win our particular struggles, we need to work together to defeat that system.
We had our 101st ‘Green Monday’ last month, but we have now decided to pause them temporarily, in view of the fact that Cuadrilla have had to suspend operations following their August earth ’tremor’ which registered 2.9 on the Richter Scale, and created some cracks in houses around the fracking site.
What have the protests been like?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that protests and actions took place throughout the week - not just on ‘Green Mondays’. There’s been the absolutely fantastic Gate Camp people who, from day one of the protests, have maintained a 24/7 roadside watch on all Cuadrilla's comings and goings: including recording and reporting all the many infractions by Cuadrilla of their operating permits. Particularly outstanding as regards protests on various days have been the Lancashire Nanas: Tina Rothery, Julie Daniels, Barbara Richardson, Nick Danby - and so many more. Another regular feature has been the ‘White Wednesdays’, featuring the Women’s Call For Calm - particularly important when we experienced more frequent ‘rough’ policing during the time when Lancashire police received ‘mutual support’ from other police forces from all over the country (I myself lodged a formal complaint against a particularly rough police officer from Cumbria).
As regards the specific ‘Green Monday’ protests, these have been just the same as those carried out on all the other days of the week - sit-downs, lock-ons and truck surfs. My main physical contributions have been restricted to sit-downs and, occasionally, standing or sitting down in front of trucks and tankers, in the hope that some more nimble people would manage to get on top of the truck cabs before the police moved me! Having speakers from such a wide range of organisations has been a popular feature - and, when no disruptive actions took place, it was good that the people travelling up and down the A583 still saw so many protesters bearing witness to the climate and democracy crime of fracking. More recently, ‘Green Mondays’ have seen the distribution of several Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls and their accidentally-vegan Belgian buns! And, for our 101st ‘Green Monday’, the added enjoyment of Booths vegan prosecco!
How much support has the campaign received?
When ‘Green Mondays’ first started, the audible and visual signs of support - honking of horns, hand waves, thumbs up, etc. - were limited to just a few cars. But, by the time of our last ‘Green Monday’ this year - and despite the traffic hold-ups our protests have sometimes caused - support has increased significantly - and now regularly includes drivers of white vans, lorries and buses, and even a Mr Whippy van! This isn’t really surprising, as regular surveys have shown that public support of fracking has always been low, and has undergone a steady decline. Locally, people have been increasingly concerned about the frequent earth tremors triggered by almost every frack.
What alternatives to fracking do you see as preferable?
There are so many safer, more sustainable, alternatives - all of which have much smaller carbon emissions. To name but a few, there are: ground- and air-source pumps; shallow geothermal heat storage, and biomethane (biogas) from waste. Plus, of course, the money put into fracking could have gone into the rapidly-improving, cleaner and much cheaper forms of renewable energy.
It also strikes me that this is a question that we are not asked; do you think there is a problem about a lack of democratic accountability and democratic decision making over the energy sector?
Most certainly! For a start, before the May 2015 general election, the Tories had promised to allow local councils to decide such issues. Yet, the following year after their victory, they overturned Lancashire County Council’s decision – and the government has repeatedly ignored all the different evidence of local opposition. This isn’t really a surprise - so many representatives of the dirty energy firms are appointed as government advisers - and so many government ministers eventually pass through the revolving doors on to non-executive seats on the boards of these various fossil fuel companies. Further proof of this corrupt relationship is the massive amounts of subsidies and tax breaks given to these dirty energy companies.
When fracking was first introduced, one Tory peer infamously spoke about fracking the "desolate" North East - an extraordinarily ignorant remark. Do you feel that the choice of fracking sites reflected wider Tory attitudes towards working-class people and large parts of Northern England?
Only in part - though of course, the ‘desolate North’ remark does indicate a typical Tory contempt (very much like Rees-Mogg’s comments on the Grenfell victims). But several of the potential fracking sites have been in the South, and/or in rural areas (such as North Yorkshire) which have Tory councils or even Tory MPs. Essentially, governments which act for the 1% think they can ignore the rest of us.
And, finally, the government has recently just announced the suspension of fracking. What do you think is behind this announcement?
I suspect it has a lot to do with next month’s general election! Before the announcement, the Tories were - at least on paper (I don’t trust the LibDem leaders one jot on this: it has been widely reported that Jo Swinson accepted money from the director of a company with fracking licences, and she has generally voted against greater regulation of fracking) - the only party still favouring fracking. Plus, there’s been an increasing number of NIMBY Tory voters, councillors and MPs so concerned about fracking that they may have switched to the LibDems. This temporary halt thus allows those concerned Tories to vote for Johnson.
How can we ensure that fracking stops for good?
Several steps: firstly, do what we can to ensure that Labour wins the coming election - and I say this as a Green Party member and councillor. In addition, though, we need to be ready to resume peaceful civil disobedience wherever and whenever there are attempts to resume fracking. The time has come to pull the plugs on all fossil fuel industries.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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