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Fracking dispute lands Church in hot water

23 August 2013


Confrontation: police scuffle with anti-fracking protesters outside Cuadrilla's drill site, near Balcombe

Confrontation: police scuffle with anti-fracking protesters outside Cuadrilla's drill site, near Balcombe

FRACKING may not yet have tested the thickness of his rectory walls, as suggested by the "light-hearted" Energy Minister Michael Fallon, but it has already caused emotional tremors in the parish of the Priest-in-Charge of Balcombe, the Revd Desmond Burton.

On Monday, he described how the drilling of an oil exploration well in the West Sussex village had divided parishioners. Protesters, who have arrived in their hundreds, fear that the drilling by Cuadrilla, an oil and gas company, is the precursor to hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), whereby water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected at high pressure into rock deep beneath the earth's surface, to release gas.

"People in the village who have been good friends, because of fracking issues have fallen out quite strongly," Mr Burton said. "This is a village that tends to accommodate, quite maturely, differences of opinion. . . People in our village who have become anti-frackers are genuinely taken over by deep concern for the environment - almost an evangelical zeal." He said that the church in Balcombe was "completely neutral" on the issue, but that "the issue of global warming is one that virtually all of the village is united in being concerned about." One farmer's field had been "commandeered" by protesters, causing "genuine anger".

A group of Christians have been staying at the Reclaim the Power climate camp in Balcombe since Friday. On Monday, two Christians were among 25 demonstrators arrested.

One of the Christian activists, Westley Ingram, said: "A church that does not take a stand on climate change in the interests of the poor, at home and abroad, does not represent Jesus Christ well, if at all."

On Thursday of last week, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, called for a "more challenging" debate about fracking: "It is easy, but also dangerous, to claim the moral high ground in complex debate about the environment and our quest for new energy sources. The rich resources that fracking can unlock come with some questionable consequences, both for the present and the future."

Last week, the Church Commissioners issued a statement rebutting claims in the press that their registering of mineral interests, in line with Land Registry requirements - prompting letters to residents across the country - had any link to fracking. There were "no particular plans to mine under any property".

On Friday, the chairman of the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Philip Fletcher, said that the Church of England had "no official policy either for or against hydraulic fracturing. . . There are a number of balancing considerations which need to be taken into account when coming to a view. Fuel poverty is an increasingly urgent issue for many in society - the impact on energy bills is felt most by the least well off. Blanket opposition to further exploration for new sources of fuel fails to take into account those who suffer most when resources are scarce."

He said: "We do not want cowboys and cavaliers digging up the land in a free-for-all exploitation. However, as the Royal Academy of Engineering concluded recently in a review on fracking, this is a procedure which 'can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced through regulation'."

Cuadrilla has a number of exploration sites in the Bowland Shale basin in Lancashire. The diocese of Blackburn has produced a leaflet on fracking that highlights numerous concerns about potential environmental risks. Produced by the diocesan rural and environmental project officer, the Revd Chris Halliwell, it calls for fracking to be considered "in the context of global climate- change, which itself cannot be ignored by Christians, as it raises questions of justice, fairness, provision, stewardship and love for God, his creation and his creatures, including our global human neighbours."

On Monday, the Area Dean of Blackpool, the Revd Dr Simon Cox, said: "The diocese is trying to sound neutral, but key figures are opposed as much on carbon usage as fracking itself, with a possible over-reliance on nuclear-free alternatives.

They are strangely quiet about the long running gas-storage saga at Fleetwood [protesters oppose the storage of gas in salt caverns under Wyre], which presumably can't co-exist with fracking and seem less driven by the appalling levels of unemployment in Blackpool which fracking could in part address. In part, it is the old question about how far a local community should pay for national and international decisions."

On Tuesday, The Times reported that the chairman of the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, Derek Lickorish, said that it was "part of the Government's duty" to explore fracking for shale gas, which had the potential to reduce energy costs: "the voice of the fuel, poor has been lost in the current frenzy".

The Prime Minister is firmly behind fracking. In an article for The Daily Telegraph earlier this month, he wrote: "If we don't back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country competitive."

Besides the risk of water contamination, campaigners warn that fracking will put pressure on scarce water supplies, and is a distraction from investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy.

Question of the Week: Should fracking be permitted in the UK?

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