Cold War Rhetoric Does not Help UK Shale Debate, Creates Mistrust
Despite attempts from local government to bet on transparency to bolster the nascent shale gas industry in the United Kingdom, the recent disclosure of British police’s spying activities on green groups indicate that confrontations between shale gas skeptics and enthusiasts could gain new ground. Questioning national authorities’ ability to transparently cope with unconventional developments could help green groups to stop exploration and production in a climate resembling the Cold War period. Spies and mistrust don’t support shale gas production, as they hinder any social and economic activities.
It comes as no surprise that the future of British unconventionals comes down to the Government’s ability to reassure investors and, more than anything else, to create trust amongst local population. Will Prime Minister David Cameron and Energy Minister Michael Fallon able to do so? Or will they underestimate the (legitimate) interest of local communities to stand up against developments? If the UK wants significant shale gas production to happen, transparency should not be a motto, but a final commitment. Transparency should be more important than the result itself, also because an escalation of doubts and fears would probably lead to political (and social) instability. The government would inevitably be the first one to pay the price.
COLD WAR IN THE UK?
Any person who attended conferences of local communities against shale gas knows that British anti-shale activists are mainly pensioners and some tender-hearted green campaigners. There is very little in common with dangerous activists in Eastern Ukraine. It is hard to believe than those people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are financed or supported by Russia.
Nonetheless, police spied on anti-shale protesters using covert surveillance and, according to some reports, shared the information with Cuadrilla Resources.
"We have a responsibility to gather intelligence to assess risk and build plans to keep people safe. Covert tactics are legitimate and necessary and whilst we can't disclose specific details the methodology of these tactics is well publicised,” Sussex Police wrote to Natural Gas Europe, not explaining the underlining rational of the decision. They did not answer to the question posed about eventual life threats to Cuadrilla’s employees. Was it really necessary to spy on locals? This remains unclear.
What is evident though is that, in a moment of low trust in our societies, spying on domestic protestors could backlash on British plans to exploit shale gas at least for three reasons.
Firstly, the UK is cutting resources for public bodies and some activists suggested that funds could be better allocated.
"I am appalled that covert resources are being wasted on people exercising their democratic right to protest,” Craig Bennett, campaigns and policy director for Friends of the Earth, told Natural Gas Europe.
Secondly, the timing is extremely wrong.
“The UK police has a long history of infiltrating environmental groups, even entering into relationships with campaigners to gather intelligence. And ever since the Edward Snowden revelations, everybody knows that the government is monitoring communication on a massive scale. No longer the domain of conspiracy theorists,” Geert Decock, Director EU Affairs - Food & Water Europe, explained.
Decock also said that spying activities and recent NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen’s declarations contribute in creating a taut climate.
“Anti-fracking groups believe that fracking should be banned due to its environmental and public health impacts. To accuse them of ulterior motives or being manipulated - or even funded - by e.g. Russia brings back a whole Cold War rhetoric in debates about how Europe should move ahead with reducing its emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050. This is very unhelpful and limits the space for a genuine democratic debate about the (lack of) merits of fracking. Once you start importing (Cold) war-like terminology, soon everybody is an enemy,” Decock added in an email to Natural Gas Europe.
Thirdly, it is worth remembering Robert Merton’s self-fulfilling prophecy. According to this sociological theory, the risk is that telling activists they are violent, they could actually become so.
‘The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning,’ Merton wrote in 1948.
It remains to understand how pensioners could find the strength to become violent. One might argue that 78-years-old Silvio Berlusconi is so active and potentially dangerous for Italian government, but that is a completely different story. Berlusconi could bare his teeth, but for sure he is not as athletic and cutting as Uruguay’s player Luis Suárez. Age matters.
TRANSPARENT MEDDLING: CONTRADICTION IN TERMS
In this context, it is not clear who is deciding what the risks are and how to limit them. Decisional processes remain quite difficult to understand - if not murky - and this fact could deprive the British government of its authority.
‘So I can announce today that I have taken steps to make licences fit for purpose whilst increasing public transparency about fracking,’ Minister of State for Energy Michael Fallon recently said at the UK Shale Conference.
These declarations could be detrimental for the government’s respectability. It sounds slightly ironic that Fallon is pushing for more transparency during the current legitimacy crisis.
Taking the Balcombe protests, it is clear that mistakes have been made. According to the document ‘Peer Group Review of Operation Mansell - Anti Fracking protest - Sussex Police,’ police was ‘aware of a potential threat at the Cuadrilla site from May 2013,’ but it did not prepare on time.
On the other hand, those risks were cited by the company as a primary reason for the suspension of drilling activity in mid-August 2013. This then translated into a not better defined involvement of more senior authorities.
‘It is apparent that Cuadrilla’s decision then became a significant political/economic issue related to subsequent involvement at a more senior political level,’ reads the redacted copy of the Review, obtained by InvestigatingBalcombeAndCuadrilla.com through a Freedom of Information Act request.
WHAT’S NEXT? RIDICULOUS ACCUSATIONS OR DEMOCRATIC ENGAGEMENT?
Some activists are meeting in London on Monday, July 7th.
‘We want to bring together a group of top-notch creative thinkers and doers including coders, developers, activists, artists, designers and writers, to imagine and create a new set of online tools, mobile apps, games, and resources that will help to stop fracking in the UK, once and for all,’ some of them wrote on the website TalkFracking.org.
According to their note, campaigners are recruiting new generations. They do indeed see room for stronger protests through tech activism, which they consider to have the power to connect new people with the cause.
In this context, activists could easily capitalise on the mistakes authorities and governments continue to make. First of all, the lack of transparency.
If the waters appear cloudy, imagination can easily transcend. Activists could easily accuse the government of fascist decisions, while some politicians could follow Rasmussen’s rhetoric and sue grandmothers for Russia-led sabotage. This is simply ridiculous.
In this sense, there is not a receipt for shale gas to happen. It all depends on local communities. Do they want it? That remains the main issue. Spying activities don’t help, and Fallon’s speech to shale enthusiasts is of little help. He should speak with local communities, not only with energy companies, as the government should understand its people and promote a democratic debate, drifting away from Cold War methods and rhetorics. That is the meaning of transparency.