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In a green and pleasant land

30 August 2013

"WE WANT our land to remain frack-free," a resident, Helen Savage, said, bringing echoes of "Jerusalem" to events in Balcombe, West Sussex (News, 23 August). Indeed, the villagers even sing their own version of the song, in what is a very English revolt. But restless armies had gathered around this pretty village of 2000 souls, the chosen battlefield for an argument that must finally have its day.

Supporters say that fracking is safe, and is essential to make the UK more energy self-sufficient. Opponents say that the technique causes small earth tremors, (as it did in Blackpool, in 2011), and environmental damage.

Fracking involves the use, deep underground, of a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals to crack rocks and release gas stored inside. There is a lot of gas underneath Sussex, and now that the government ban on exploratory drilling has been lifted, Balcombe has become a flashpoint. Supporters point to the United States, where fracking has revolutionised the energy industry, and now offers gas security to the US and Canada for 100 years.

Opponents such as Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, say that, with 75 per cent of its mass made from carbon, shale gas has no part to play in a low-carbon future.

Meanwhile, in Balcombe, a resident, Charles Metcalfe, a TV wine expert, has, with his wife, formed the No Fracking in Balcombe Society. "As far as I'm concerned," he said, "I'm a Sussex resident who thinks this is a poisonous process which will do us a lot of harm, and not a lot of financial good."

Eighty-five per cent of the people in the village are opposed to the practice, but deny that they are NIMBYs. They say that there is no justification for fracking anywhere in the UK - unlike the Tory peer Lord Howell of Guildford, who recently told the House that fracking should be confined to "desolate" areas of northern England. He has since apologised for his "northist" remark, but his perception remains: fracking is a bit unsightly for the careful flowerbeds of the south.

Everyone is trying to build Jerusalem, but with different bricks. Supporters of fracking say that the New Jerusalem will need to be lit; opponents question the value of lighting a wasteland. And protest appears to be working, as the energy company Cuadrilla is "scaling back" its operations in the face of organised opposition.

The quiet irony remains, however: the name "Balcombe" may well mean "mining-place camp", suggesting that 2000 years ago it was a Roman mining settlement.

Simon Parke tweets @simonparke

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