The anti-fracking victory yesterday should not distract from disturbing trends in the criminalisation of dissent.
Three anti-fracking protesters – Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou – were sentenced to 15 and 16 months in prison for ‘causing a public nuisance’ in late September this year. A fourth protester, Julian Brock, received an 18 months suspended sentence after pleading guilty to the public nuisance charges.
The ‘Frack-Free Four’ had been arrested during a ‘month of protest’ in the summer of 2017 that aimed to disrupt exploratory drilling activities at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire. The four climbed onto lorries that were delivering part of a drill rig and remained there for up to four days impeding the vehicles’ movement to the fracking site.
Their sentences were overturned, with the judge acknowledging that they were “manifestly excessive”. It was a huge victory for the anti-fracking movement, and for everyone concerned about the right to protest in the UK and beyond.
Since the harsh sentencing, people across the country have stood up and spoken out against the ruling.
More than 23,000 people signed a petition for a parliamentary inquiry into the shrinking space for civil opposition against fracking, backed by 1,500 academics – including scientists, policy experts, ethicists, legal scholars and others – who expressed their serious concerns about the excessive punishment and increasing criminalisation of protest in the UK.
Most importantly, the anti-fracking movement has shown that it is not intimidated by the ruling. On October 1st, just days after the sentencing, nine individuals blockaded the same site (now ‘protected’ with an injunction) for three days, by climbing and locking onto two tripods.
In the same week, less than a kilometre away, people lorry-surfed trucks heading for the site.
On October 15th, the day Cuadrilla began fracking operations at PNR and two days before the appeal hearing, four protectors blocked the entrance to the same site once again.
Cultures of resistance
The prison sentences for the three lorry surfers represented the first jail sentences handed down to environmental defenders for charges of “public nuisance” since 1932. But imprisonment for environmental defenders is by no means new.
For example, in 1993, seven defenders were imprisoned for 28 days for putting their bodies in the way to stop the building of the M3 highway through Twyford Down. Others were jailed for taking action against the M11 link road in east London and the Newbury bypass.
Yet others have been jailed for protesting field trials of genetically modified organisms or nuclear energy. What distinguished the prison sentences for the anti-fracking campaigners was the length: they were told that would spend almost one and a half years behind bars.
The exceptionally harsh sentencing of Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou is important for what it signalled, and for the moment at which it occurred. The judgement has shocked many people, but should not come as a surprise when viewed in light of the tensions generated by the government’s backing of fracking, despite rising concerns about climate change and growing public opposition to this highly controversial form of energy production.
Only around 16 percent of the British public support fracking development. The original judgement highlights worrying trends in the suppression and criminalisation of protest and dissent in the UK that particularly affect environmental defenders.
Moreover, the success of the appeal should be seen as a response to the effectiveness of direct action not only in raising public awareness, resisting and stopping harmful industrial developments, but also in creating cultures of autonomy and resistance that constitute a threat to the status quo.
Unconventional extraction of shale gas or oil through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, constitutes the frontier of extreme energy extractivism in England. Advocates have praised fracking for ending dependence of foreign (in particular Russian) oil and gas, and the UK government included fracking in its “clean growth strategy”.
However, fracking methods are extremely risky, leading to bans or moratoria in Scotland, Wales, France and Germany, amongst others.
Peer-reviewed scientific studies and testimonies of local residents in fracking areas confirm that the risks to human and ecological health are immense. Well-documented local environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing include the spillage of methane and leakage of toxic chemicals from drilling wells, contaminated drinking water, radioactive waste and earthquakes (including in Lancashire in 2011).
In addition, as climate chaos is increasingly felt – the heat wave blistering the UK this summer being one obvious example – the continued reliance on fossil fuels seems ecocidal.
Indeed, the fact the fracking at the Lancashire site was resumed just one week after the publication of a landmark intergovernmental report from the IPCC about the need to accelerate action on climate change by abandoning fossil fuels shows the level of indifference and hypocrisy shown by the government to the threat of climate change and its impact on the world’s most vulnerable people.
Fracking is not, as advocates often claim, a pathway to achieving energy security. Nor is it more ‘sustainable’ than conventional techniques of extraction: when including the emissions from fracking production processes as well as consumption, the acclaimed net greenhouse gas benefits disappear.
The development of fracking is incompatible with the 2 degree, let alone 1.5 degree target. It does not promote, but rather hampers a much needed sustainable energy transition and fundamental changes to our political economic system, further entrenching (fossil) capital interests.
Yet, the British government is backing fracking at all costs. In recent years, it has been working hard at the policy level to clear the way for fracking development.
According to the website of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial strategy: “Shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, economic growth and jobs, and could be an important part of our transition to a low carbon future … and government will ensure the right framework is in place to support industry and local communities as [this] exploration, and in some cases production, moves forward”.
Amendments to the 2015 Infrastructure Act were made to facilitate drilling without landowners’ consent. After local councils rejected seven out of eight drilling plans in the first months of 2018, the government initiated a set of measures aimed at pushing projects rapidly through the planning system.
Under plans announced by business secretary Greg Clark, initial stages in the fracking process would be classified as “permitted development”, which means that no local planning application is required.
In addition, fracking sites could be labelled as “nationally significant infrastructure”, which would allow fracking operations to bypass local-level approval. At the same time, the energy secretary announced a few days ago that established health regulations around earthquakes, a frequent effect of fracking operations, might be eroded.
Anti-fracking campaigners have documented that close links to the fracking industry exist at the heart of the British state. This is exemplified by the judge who sentenced the anti-fracking campaigners, John Robert Altham, whose family’s business J.C. Altham and Sons is part of the supply chain for UK-based energy multinational Centrica, which has invested tens of millions of pounds in fracking.
Furthermore, at a time the government was developing its pro-fracking policies, energy industry figures like Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw and BG Group director Baroness Hogg were holding senior advisory positions in government.
The consequence of these close ties and patterns of patronage is that the government has systematically prioritised the demands of the fracking industry over the demands of communities, sacrificing local landscapes, human health concerns and the climate. As such, it is simultaneously “fracking democracy”, eroding the basis of any claim the government might have to democratically legitimate policy making by denying space for local public consultation.
For years, people have been taking action against the fracking industry, in hundreds of local groups across the country, and it has been working.
Environmental defenders have worked with local communities, obstructed every step of the legal process, and have taken direct action when people’s concerns were silenced. They have effectively slowed the growth of the fracking industry, despite the best efforts of companies and their government partners.
John, from the radical political theory magazine Aufheben, wrote about the famous anti-road campaign in the early 1990s, which laid the foundation of the ecological direct action movement to which the lorry surfers belong.
He said: “[B]y adopting direct action as a form of politics, we … look to ourselves as a source of change … Therefore the key to the political significance of the … campaign lies less in the immediate aims of stopping the road and in the immediate costs we have incurred for capital and the state (although these are great achievements and great encouragement to others), and more in our creation of a climate of autonomy, disobedience and resistance.
“Thus, this life of permanent struggle is simultaneously a negative act (stopping the road etc) and a positive pointer to the kind of social relation that could be: … a community of resistance.”
The harsh sentencing of Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou should be read as a backlash against the widespread and growing resistance to fracking, and as the latest example of the increased stifling and criminalisation of dissent in the UK to make way for such dangerous extractive industries.
The sentence was so absurd that it was quickly overturned, only hours into the appeal hearing. Yet, we need to stay alert. The continuation and intensification of extractivism lies not only at the heart of the industrial system, but also at the heart of modernist ideology and the state-system.
Extractivism involves not just the mining of (fossil) resources, but also ways of controlling people by force, fear or by capturing the “hearts and minds” of the population so that they never think to question the claims made by powerful proponents of harmful extractive technologies.
Charm offensives are increasingly difficult in countries like England, where the “industrialisation of the countryside” and ever more extreme extraction processes have become increasingly unpopular with the public. As a result, powerful alliances between fracking companies and the British government are resorting to increasingly repressive legal means, aggressive policing and erosion of local democracy.
The trend is visible in developments like the granting of injunctions to pre-empt protest and protect profits; government efforts to associate opponents of fracking with political extremism and domestic terrorism; the increasingly militarised policing of protesters; and harsher punishments and compensation payments given to environmental defenders charged with minor crimes such as aggravated trespassing.
Structures of power
All this is taking place while government itself continues to erode one of the key tenets of ‘democratic’ legitimacy upon which this country’s political system is alleged to rest: meaningful public consultation.
Ecological direct action against extractivism represents a threat to the state, because it questions the very ideology of the state and its belief in growth.
Many anti-fracking protectors demand radical changes that would undermine this ideology, calling for ecological justice that represents a rupture with the current concentration of economic/political power and the structures that uphold this power, and that facilitate the ecocide we are witnessing.
More importantly, however, direct action challenges the role of the state to trigger and manage social change, empowers and creates autonomous and disobedient populations, and, in an example like fracking, arguably represents the public’s only recourse in the face of the erosion of so-called democracy.
Andrea Brock, Dr Amber Huff, Dr Judith Verweijen, Professor Jan Selby, Professor David Ockwell, and Professor Peter Newell are researching the political economy of energy, resources conflicts, development and extractivism at the University of Sussex.
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