Environmentalists in the United Kingdom are reeling after French energy giant Total became the first company to announce an investment in fracking in the country.
The $48 million play is tiny by industry standards, but many see it as the first sign that Prime Minister David Cameron’s push to allow the controversial practice has paid off, despite protests from environmentalists who say the environmental danger posed by shale gas exploration (commonly known as fracking) outweighs the potential economic benefits.
Fracking — a process in which thousands of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand are injected into drilled wells in order to break up shale rich with oil and natural gas — has been spreading across the U.S., giving environmentalists and proponents of the practice in the U.K. precedents to point to when arguing their case.
Advocates point out that communities like Williston, N.D., and parts of Pennsylvania have seen huge economic gains because of fracking. Opponents, meanwhile, highlight the myriad environmental and health issues linked to fracking — including water pollution, cancer concerns and even earthquakes.
The U.K. debates have mirrored those in the U.S. because Britain is experiencing a similar economic depression in its rural counties, making the promise of any industry attractive, no matter how controversial.
But in the U.K. both sides are even less reserved in expressing their viewpoints, with political leaders telling communities to get ready for fracking whether they like it or not and with environmentalists resorting to unconventional tactics to get their points across.
Days before Total announced its investment in Gainsborough — an economically struggling part of northern England — Cameron released a statement saying his government was “going all out for shale.” He announced that in order to incentivize municipalities to allow fracking, they would be able to keep 100 percent of the fees that energy companies must pay for each well they drill. Cameron previously said local communities would keep just 50 percent.
“I want us to get on board (with) this change that is doing so much good and bringing so much benefit to North America,” Cameron said. “I want us to benefit from it here as well.”
He dismissed concerns from environmentalists, saying that opponents would drop their protests once they saw how much economic benefit fracking could bring to the country.
Environmentalists have referred to the policy change as a bribe.
“(Cameron’s government) is cutting local council budgets, so they have less money and need more,” said Anna Jones, a member of Greenpeace’s U.K. branch. “You can’t have an objective body deciding whether to allow fracking if they stand to make a load of money from it.”
But some cash-strapped localities seem to see fracking as their best option: In a recent BBC poll, 44 percent of North West Englanders said they were in favor of fracking, 34 percent were against it, and 22 percent were undecided.
Environmentalists hope to convince undecided Britons that the economic benefits don’t outweigh the costs.
They’ve taken to the streets and have even overtaken fracking test sites by gluing themselves to drilling equipment.
Their main message: Despite what Cameron’s government says, fracking is unsafe. They point out that Total can’t frack in its home country because France has banned the practice over safety concerns.
Total’s investment and the intense response it has generated may be signs of things to come.
Analysts say that if Total is successful in its initial drilling, a flood of frackers may come running to Britain. Countries that have banned the practice may, in turn, take notice, and fracking could spread across Western Europe as fast as it has across the U.S.
And activists say that just as in the U.S., frackers should expect a fight at every turn.
“Despite an increasingly garish public-relations campaign from the government, the industry is losing," Wendy Rainer, an organizer with U.K. protest group Frack Off, told Al Jazeera in an email. "The reality is that each well the fracking companies attempt to drill is being met by months of community blockading and millions in policing costs.”