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The blade of a wind turbine that is destined to be dropped off at the office of Francis Maude MP later that day. Credit Jan Goodey.

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This is bigger than Balcombe

Sophie Stammers

Musician Sophie Stammers visited Balcombe, the site of Cuadrilla’s controversial exploratory shale well, with a song to sing at the gates of the oil and gas firm’s operations. She returned with the sense of having become part of something much bigger, something which is steadily gaining momentum.....

We developed our ideas and forged deeper connections between the different components of the climate movement

Cuadrilla started moving equipment to the Balcombe site in late July. Now, it has erected a 24m rig and intends to implement a kilometre deep well to explore the potential for extracting shale oil and gas through the environmentally hazardous and energy intensive process of hydraulic fracturing - or ‘fracking’.

But Cuadrilla is not alone. Spanning several hundreds of metres alongside the site, clinging to the verge of the B2036, there stands a colourful tented village. Adorned with flags and banners expressing peaceful but urgent sentiments against Cuadrilla’s operations, this is no welcome party. Inhabited by exasperated locals and concerned climate protesters, this camp is the new front-line of the anti-fracking movement, a movement which over the last few days has exploded. 

Things went up a gear when No Dash for Gas, (the campaign group whose week-long occupation of the West Burton power station in 2012 prevented the release of 20,000 tonnes of carbon emissions) decided to stand in solidarity with the residents of Balcombe, and to hold their five day action camp, ‘Reclaim the Power’ there. With local resident Kathryn McWhirter telling the BBC “We in Balcombe feel bullied. Bullied by the oil and gas industry. Bullied by our government... We stand strong in the fight against this dangerous and misguided government policy,” it’s easy to understand why. 

What’s happening in Balcombe, if it’s allowed to go ahead, is far bigger than Balcombe - it’s about everyone’s energy future. With a wave of coal-fired power stations due to go offline over the next decade, the government propose to plug the resulting energy gap by building 30 new gas power plants, increasing our fossil-fuel dependency and pushing our carbon reduction targets even further out of reach at a time when proven UK renewables can play a key role in future energy security.

The mobilization of fracking represents severe climate injustice: Supplying and conducting shale extraction is highly carbon intensive, whilst the potential for emitting methane during drilling means that the process may release more emissions than coal. The economic injustice of rising fuel prices to consumers isn’t alleviated by fracking either: Whilst fossil fuels subsidies still dwarf those of renewables despite the established infrastructure of the former, and fracking firms can enjoy a 50% tax cut on profits, Cuadrilla itself admits that its shale operation will make ‘no significant’ difference to gas prices and fuel poverty.

Nor is social justice meted out here: the residents of Balcombe have no rights of community ownership over the potential resource beneath their homes. And because Reclaim the Power intends to challenge these three pillars of injustice that the fossil fuel industry perpetuates, it became clear that the next stage in the campaign had to happen in Balcombe. 

On my walk to play music on the opening night at the Reclaim camp, I passed many yellow ribbons tied to the gates of cottages - a great number of local residents display their solidarity with the anti-fracking movement. I arrive in a field that does not look dissimilar to a small music festival; half a dozen marquees, jovially decorated composting loos, a designated area for families and young children, accessible camping for wheelchair users (Disabled People Against the Cuts campaigners would go on to lead one of the blockades of the Cuadrilla site), solar panels supplying power to the site and two sustainably supplied vegan kitchens. My only regret of opting for Oxford kitchen’s deconstructed aubergine and red lentil moussaka with a fresh garden salad was missing out on Bradford kitchen’s coconut curry and satay drizzled steamed greens. This is organized living. Yet, it is also participatory and inclusive: There are no ‘leaders’ - decisions are made through consensus, and you are welcomed regardless of your ability to make a donation towards your stay. 

On the day after my performance, I help out in the Welcome Tent, handing out programmes, and directing people about the site. All manner of people arrive to pitch up and attend the many educational workshops which run on Saturday, from seasoned climate campaigners, to residents from the surrounding villages, to passing cyclists interested in what all the tents are about.

There are people in groups, folks on their own, families, teenagers, an elderly man who strides brightly past me, asking me to save him a programme as he’s got errands to run and people to see. In the afternoon, I attend a workshop premised on understanding privilege, where we’re given envelopes containing sweets, and we must trade with each other to gain four of the same colour. Soon we realise that not everyone starts off with the same number of sweets... The workshops are educative and collaborative. They allow us to develop our ideas and forge deeper connections between the different components of the climate movement. 

On Sunday, we march in solidarity with the Balcombe residents to the Cuadrilla site. I go early to play music outside the gates. In no time at all, I meet a flautist, and we rattle off a series of jigs and reels. Soon, we’re joined by an acoustic bass, another guitar, spoons, singers and dancers, and we begin a medley of lively folk songs. I turn to see if the Cuadrilla workers can hear us, and - though I might have imagined it - see a hint of entertainment tug at the features of one of the stern faced coppers. His eyes dart away from us, but still; I hope he’s enjoying our show.

At three o’clock, the march begins from the station. I happen to be in front of a crowd of residents. To my left, four marchers carry a long, pale cream object. At first I wonder whether they are planning on ramming the site gates, and then, to my delight, I realise that between them they are carrying the blade of a decommissioned wind turbine.

This is later carried to the roof for Francis Maude MP’s house, in what I believe to be a beautiful, peaceful and deeply meaningful action. There are drums, and we sing. I’m happy that those in my immediate vicinity are up for doing some harmonies. When we arrive at the gates, we sing more. Once again, although I might be mistaken, I think I see the lips of a policeman twitch at our song. Was that a smile? 

I came to Balcombe to sing. I did not find this ‘rent-a-mob’ of media fame. I met only  dedicated, educated, determined people, who act neither violently nor for financial reward. I am glad they are taking a stand for my future and yours. This is bigger than Balcombe, and Balcombe is just the start. But together, we decide how it ends. 

All images in photo gallery credit Tom Levick.

Follow Sophie Stammers on twitter.

No Dash for Gas: http://www.nodashforgas.org.uk/

Sophie's music: http://www.facebook.com/sophiesounds 

References available on request.

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