(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)
By John Kemp
LONDON, Aug 13 (Reuters) - The village of Balcombe in West Sussex has become the focal point for protests against hydraulic fracturing in Britain. But Balcombe is also a fascinating microcosm of the contradictions besetting Britain’s policies on energy and economic development.
Like households across the rest of the country, Balcombe’s residents use rather a lot of fossil fuels.
In fact, they use more fossil fuels than most. Three-quarters of Balcombe’s homes have gas central heating, in line with the rest of the country (78 percent). But Balcombe’s residents consume 30 percent more gas and 30 percent more electricity than the average for England, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Most households in Balcombe have either one car (37.6 percent) or two (39.2 percent). With 1.6 vehicles per household, car ownership is nearly 40 percent higher than in England as a whole (1.16 vehicles per household).
Like many other Britons, Balcombe’s residents, and the protestors who have travelled down to show solidarity with them, depend on the availability of reasonably priced oil and gas - they just don’t want it produced in their own area.
Situated 31 miles south of London, in beautiful countryside between the North and South Downs, Balcombe had a population of 1,917 at the last census in March 2011, organised into 755 households, according to the ONS (www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk).
It is a prosperous and well-educated place. Only 7 percent of working-age residents claim jobless, disability or other “key benefits” from the government, less than half the 15 percent rate for England as a whole. Forty percent of residents aged 16 or over hold a bachelors degree or higher qualification, substantially more than the national average of 27 percent.
Most locals describe themselves as managers, professionals or associate professionals (54.2 percent), a rather higher proportion than in the country as a whole (41.2 percent). The unemployment rate in 2011 was just 1.2 percent.
Amid all this prosperity, Balcombe’s problem is that it sits on a potential oil field.
Balcombe’s oil field is part of a string of oil and gas accumulations in the Wessex Sedimentary Basin. The basin stretches through some of southern England’s prettiest and most prosperous areas, from the county of Dorset in the west through Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex to Kent in the east.
Cuadrilla Resources has begun to drill an oil well near the village, and will probably also eventually want to stimulate it by pressure-pumping the well bore.
However, Cuadrilla is not the first company to come prospecting. In September 1986, U.S. oil company Conoco began drilling an exploratory well (Balcombe-1) near the village, according to a database of onshore oil and gas wells maintained by Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
Drilling was completed the following March. But Conoco decided to plug and abandon the hole rather than develop the field. Perhaps initial flow rates proved disappointing. Or maybe Conoco decided the field was just not worth developing amid slumping oil prices in the second half of the 1980s.
Almost 27 years later, with new production techniques and higher oil prices, Cuadrilla has started drilling Balcombe-2 in virtually the same location.
Cuadrilla’s operations have drawn protests from residents and a broad range of environmental groups from across the country. Concerns range from the risk of groundwater contamination and seismic tremors to the heavy traffic associated with drilling and fracturing and the potential “industrialisation of the countryside.”
So where should oil and gas be produced, if not in prosperous and picturesque areas like Balcombe?
Last month, David Howell, an energy and transport minister during the 1980s and now a member of Britain’s House of Lords, sparked a political firestorm when he suggested fracking should be concentrated in north-east England because it has “large uninhabited and desolate areas.”
Howell is affiliated with Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, which draws much of its support from rural areas such as Balcombe in the south-east. By contrast, north-east England is a stronghold of the opposition Labour Party.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Howell wondered: “Obviously, in beautiful rural areas there are worries not just about drilling and fracking - which I think are exaggerated - but about trucks, deliveries, roads and disturbance, which are quite justified.
“However, there are large, uninhabited and desolate areas, certainly in parts of the north-east, where there is plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence, and where it could be conducted without any threat to the rural environment.”
In fact population density around Balcombe (397 people per square km) is close to the average for England (401). The area is a bit less crowded than the rest of south-east England (447 people per square km) though a bit more densely populated than Howell’s “uninhabited and desolate” north-east (304 people per square km).
The one place in England where a well has already been drilled and fracked, the borough of Fylde in Lancashire, in north-west England, is actually rather more densely populated than Balcombe: Fylde has 463 people per square km to Balcombe’s 397.
The problem with fracking in “uninhabited and desolate” areas, wherever they are located, is they tend to be sparsely populated because they are rugged upland wildernesses, designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or National Parks, in all of which development is strictly controlled for scenic reasons.
It is not clear that fracking in wilderness areas would be any more acceptable to politicians or the groups protesting against fracking in Balcombe.
Britain’s politicians prefer energy developments offshore, particularly if they cannot be seen from the coast line. It is where the country is sticking most of its new wind farms, even though they cost substantially more than onshore turbines to build and maintain.
North Sea oil and gas fields are popular with both politicians and the public because they bring in lots of tax revenue and are out of sight.
But offshore petroleum production brings its own risks such as oil spills. While Britain’s politicians are keen on North Sea oil, the country’s environmental movement is already gearing up to oppose oil and gas development further afield in the Arctic because of the risks of pollution and disturbing an existing wilderness area.
Fracking protests are one aspect of a bigger contradiction in modern Britain’s attitudes towards industry, energy and economic development on one hand, and its aspirations for local communities, countryside and the environment on the other.
The same controversies which surround fracking are being replayed in almost every other element of spatial planning. Just as Britain’s politicians and voters cannot agree on where to site oil and gas wells, they cannot agree where to put new homes, new rail routes, new highways, new airports, new power plants or any other form of industrial development.
The result is dysfunctional and over-priced housing, brutally crowded commuter railways, a congested road network and worries about how to keep the lights on when the current generations of coal-fired and nuclear power plants are retired.
Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, popular with Conservative supporters, Prime Minister David Cameron warned that fracking could not be confined to certain parts of Britain. “We are all in this together,” he wrote Monday.
Cameron drew an analogy with Britain’s leading role in the industrial revolution. “For centuries, Britain has led the way in technological endeavour ... Fracking is part of this tradition, so let’s seize it,” Cameron appealed to readers.
Now he has to convince some of his most ardent supporters.
Because if the industrial revolution occurred today, planning laws mean it would not be in Britain. (Editing by Keiron Henderson)