Local resistance to extreme energy extraction

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Rural community fears 'extreme' and unconventional drilling for oil.


You can be forgiven for not knowing where South Willingham is. I confess I didn’t, until members of Lincoln Green Party picked me up from their train station and drove me a good half-hour out into the Lincolnshire Wolds to the small village. There's no other transport option – when I asked Google Maps for a public transport option, it came back “there isn’t one”.

South Willingham doesn’t have a pub. It doesn’t have a shop. It does have a lovely little village hall, which was packed to the rafters for a public meeting when I arrived. That might have been expected for the harvest supper, held a couple of months before, but not for a political meeting.

The community is greatly concerned about what’s threatened in its vicinity just up the road at Biscathorpe, and about what’s happening to our wider world. What’s threatened is oil drilling – and not just drilling, but unconventional drilling.

Extreme energy 

One manifestation of what’s often described as “extreme energy” - ways of extracting the carbon stored over countless millennia in the earth, that some companies are now determined to uncover despite the desperate warnings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Some companies are expensively trying to work out means of “carbon capture and storage”, ways of extracting carbon and then injecting it back into the Earth. 

This process is similar to fracking, a kind of drilling that's got a lot more attention around the country, from Preston New Road to Balcombe. It doesn’t fit into quite the same legal category in England, because the government - in a neat sleight-of-hand - defined that term as only applying to extraction from shale. 

Here the plan is to seek oil in sandstone, what’s known as “deep, tight” sandstone. The EU, however, puts both techniques under the same classification, of “unconventional” extraction.

Residents have already seen some of the impacts. A well pad has been constructed, apparently contravening planning conditions that stipulate a special access road. Instead it uses country roads already stretched by regular loads - and threatened with 650 HGV loads over the period of maximum activity.

Acid squeeze

One of the things the local community is deeply fearful of is the risk of spillages of the many noxious chemicals used in the process of what are known as “matrix acidizing” and “acid squeeze” – effectively dissolving the rock to let out the oil, sometimes under pressure.

As a local county councillor told the meeting, planning hearings aren’t allowed to consider risks. They’re told to assume that everything will work out fine.

Yet as a local resident and former army man who'd served in Iraq told the meeting, that’s a very dangerous assumption. He was speaking form his own bitter experience. 

We know that extreme energy extraction has largely developed in the US - a country with little or no regulation, in which cowboys are allowed to try out whatever chemicals and methods they like, without restraint or check on the results.

I told the meeting that promises of “gold standard regulation” ring hollow. One day when I visited the the Misson proposed fracking site the protectors had recorded that every single vehicle entering the site had done so from the opposite direction provided for in the planning approval.

Cavalier disregard

What makes this site a particularly disturbing choice is not that it's in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but that it's right beside an internationally rare, rich chalk stream, beside the Viking Path.

One of the people with whom I travelled to the meeting had been on Chris Packham’s March for Wildlife. The action highlighted just how incredibly nature-deprived the UK is, as charted in the 2016 State of Nature report.

We cannot afford the kind of cavalier disregard for risks that’s built into our planning system, as highlighted in Biscathorpe. We also can’t afford new fossil fuel approaches when we have to fast decarbonise out economy.

We have to save every single bit of wild nature we have left: we have to carefully husband and encourage it to spread and grow, to start to restore the desert of nature that is our land.

Extinction Rebellion is bringing this argument to the very gates of Westminster, as did the March for Wildlife, but it is also hitting home in places like South Willingham, very far away from there.

This Author 

Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.

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