Balcombe: scaling back or scaling up?

Balcombe fracking protestors
Peaceful Balcombe protestors
Fracking company Cuadrilla has ‘scaled back’ operations at its notorious Balcombe location. So why will I nevertheless be joining the thousands of protestors this weekend outside the quiet country field that has suddenly become a site of heavy and unwelcome industry?

Because ‘scaling back’ is meaningless PR wordplay.

Cuadrilla has no intention of reducing the scale of its operations, nor any plan to fall back from its present commitment. All ‘scaling back’ means here is that Cuadrilla is temporarily holding back – postponing work for a few days knowing that the number of protesters at the site is about to multiply, with coaches coming from across the UK. It’s highly likely that the protests planned for the next six days would halt any trucks attempting to access the site, so Cuadrilla won’t be sending any. It’s highly likely that production would be difficult or impossible in the coming few days, so Cuadrilla won’t be attempting any.

But that’s all.

And the real story now lies not in the next few days but in what follows. This weekend’s scale of protest may not be sustainable for months on end but it’s a fair bet that from tomorrow the protest camp will become permanently larger than the already sizeable assembly that’s there: it won’t all be over in a week. However, Cuadrilla’s ‘scaling back’ cannot last for long as, for the drilling company, time is tight. So, having got past its temporary tactical retreat, what is the company to do?

Private Eye reported last week (1346, August 9) that Cuadrilla’s original planning permission for the site slipped through West Sussex County Council and Balcombe Parish Council on the nod in 2010, without even a vote. And we may assume the work was meant to start a lot sooner but had to be postponed following the earth tremors in Morecambe. This has handed Cuadrilla a difficult deadline. Its planning permission expires at the end of September, at which time any further planning application will be rather more hotly contested than it was three years ago and the result is not a foregone conclusion.

Water is Life
Water is Life
Cuadrilla therefore has to maximise the exploration time now in order to build its case for the planning hearings and it cannot wait around indefinitely. In the next few weeks, it will very probably need to get its 13½ inch drill all the way down to its planned depth of 3,000 feet (well over half a mile) to prove its case that there’s something valuable and accessible down there other than aquifers and water tables.

So how will it resume site access? Heavy-handedly? It’s a technique as old as any military strategy: withdraw disarmingly, reinforce quietly, then pounce.

It is difficult to judge how Cuadrilla vs Balcombe will play out over the next week or two but we may be sure of this: Cuadrilla has a plan. This ‘scaling back’ is a first move, not an end in itself. Maybe Cuadrilla hopes the protest will fizzle away when it has no lorries to impede but I doubt the company or its police liaison officers are that naive. So my fear is that ‘scaling back’ doesn’t really mean ‘holding back’ at all but rather the opposite, after a short delay. If that’s the case, let us hope that ethics, moral judgement and peace prevail. When civil liberties and oil go head to head, civil liberties tend to come off worse. In the sleepy backwater of Balcombe, this must not be allowed to happen.

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