Fracking England: Drillers, Protesters in High-Stakes Showdown

British householders and businesses have looked across the Atlantic with envy in recent years at the shale gas revolution taking place in the U.S., which has led to gas prices plummeting, created tens of thousands of jobs, and set the country on the road to energy independence. Despite being beholden to the environmental lobby, the Obama administration appears to be grudgingly accepting increased shale gas and shale oil production, if only to mitigate the effects of its own mismanagement of the economy.

The UK has been slower to exploit its shale reserves, but that's changing. Britain is thought to be sitting on enough shale gas to keep the country supplied for between 50 and 100 years, and analysts are talking about a windfall for the economy on the scale of the North Sea oil boom of the 1970s. The government has announced tax breaks designed to kickstart the shale gas industry, and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has thrown his weight behind the venture.

An alliance of environmental extremists and leftists are equally determined to strangle Britain’s shale gas industry at birth. They ostensibly object to the process of “fracking” used to extract the gas -- a process which even Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has given up trying to prove is unsafe -- and to the burning of fossil fuels in general, despite reports that shale gas has helped to reduce carbon emissions. Their real complaint is with industrial development and wealth creation.

The opening shots in the fracking war have been fired outside the Sussex village of Balcombe, where energy company Cuadrilla has been carrying out exploratory drilling. The opposition initially consisted mostly of local residents worried about having the peace of their rural surroundings shattered and the countryside defaced. They took the NIMBY position: supporting new housing, roads, or industrial development, so long as it occurs elsewhere.

The locals formed an unlikely alliance with environmentalists. Initially they were the relatively harmless, tree-hugging variety; reporters were charmed by the sight of Balcombe’s comfortable professionals and retirees rubbing shoulders with dreadlocked eco-warriors. However, the protest quickly attracted hardened activists from Britain’s permanent protest subculture, the traveling circus of hard-left dropouts and petty criminals who can be found at any demonstration against the government, business, rich people, or “the system” in general. The NIMBYs have been largely sidelined as the numbers of “professional” activists have grown. While the locals are protesting out of simple self-interest, their increasingly unwelcome guests are motivated to varying degrees by misplaced concern for mother Earth and an outright hatred of capitalism.

This week, thousands of activists descended on Balcombe for two days of “direct action,” and tried to stop vehicles entering the Cuadrilla site. Dozens of protestors were arrested, including Britain’s only Green member of parliament. Cuadrilla temporarily halted operations, raising concerns that the protestors might indeed be able to intimidate it and other energy companies into scaling back or halting their operations.

How the government handles the ongoing protests at Balcombe and those that will inevitably follow at other proposed fracking sites will test both its commitment to the shale gas industry and its resolve to stand up to those who want to stop it. The signs are encouraging. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Cameron said Britain “cannot afford to miss out” on the economic benefits of shale gas. He's also promised that communities in which fracking is carried out will get a share of the profits.

Until recently, supporters of fracking had little faith in Cameron, and with good reason. He came to power in 2010 promising to lead “the greenest government ever.” While in opposition he engaged in a series of eco-friendly PR stunts, which included having a windmill installed on the roof of his London home and taking a trip to the Arctic to see the alleged effects of global warming. In government, egged on by his left-of-center Liberal Democrat coalition partners, Cameron has committed Britain to fanciful emissions targets that will add around $400 to household electricity bills by the end of the decade.

Now, with a still-stuttering economy, and political capital to be gained from lowering energy bills and creating thousands of jobs, he’s abruptly changed course.