26th September, 2016. Swanage, Dorset: a picturesque coastal town nestled into the Purbeck hills. Down on the sea front, late holidaymakers crunch ice cream cones and take in the view, little aware that a battle is being fought on the outskirts of suburbia. Here, where hedgerows meet rolling fields, a narrow, winding road - little more than a track - inclines sharply, on the way to California Quarry. Locals explain that recently the council has deemed this crumbling road appropriate for lorries to travel to and from a new exploratory drill site - one that is going ahead despite fierce protest from residents.
A short distance from the quarry, the same protesters, a mix of locals and concerned activists, have set up camp. Two horses pick their way between the tents and a kettle whistles over the fire. The offered mug of tea is sweet and hot as the wind picks up over the fields. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot - poignant in light of the threat hanging over the camp. Two sika deer graze amongst hay bales in the field next door, and, as the sky clears, a protester points out the Isle Of Wight across the bay.
Nerves at being quoted give way to a flood of anger and upset at the plans to drill here. Concerned local, Jason Haiselden, has spent three years opposing the plans to extract gas in Swanage, ever since an exploratory license was granted to InfraStrata in 2013. He explains, “In the oil and gas industry, they don’t use the term ‘exploratory;’ if you put a hole in the ground, it’s a hole in the ground - it’s not an exploratory hole. You can’t get rid of it.”
“The first thing they do is put in this hole which damages the water table” - the level below which the ground is saturated with water. “They say they will protect the water table, but all rigs of any kind fail over a period of years and that all goes back into the water table, whether that’s gas or oil exploration, drilling or fracking, and it damages the environment. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It’s a world heritage site. It’s very much a tourist area - 90% of the industry rely on tourism so we think that it’s going to affect that dramatically.”
In a statement, the independent petroleum exploration and gas storage company planning to drill here, Infrastrata, has said, “The site for the exploratory well has been carefully selected to minimise the impact on neighbours. During the main drilling phase of the project, drilling will take place 24/7 and lighting will be used at night for safety purposes. We recognise that there may be concerns from local residents about the noise levels of the operation. Noise monitoring will take place to ensure that noise thresholds set under local and national regulations are not exceeded. A number of HGV movements will be necessary, for example, to bring materials to the site during site construction and drilling but these will only be permitted during daytime hours.”
“The proposed operation will only involve conventional drilling for oil and gas and will never - either now or in the future - involve the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)” - this being the controversial pumping of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into the ground to push gas to the surface. The report continues: “If oil and gas were encountered and later successfully developed in Purbeck - following the relevant approvals - it would have a positive longer term impact on local and national industry, with local job creation and other economic benefits.”
Despite this statement, Jason and other residents remain convinced that this initial drill could become a fracking opportunity. “They’ve spent a lot of money here if they don’t then go onto other methods of exploring for gas and oil like fracking which is obviously a concern,” he explains.
Fran Quintan, an art teacher, who has lived in Dorset for over 30 years, was devastated to hear about the proposed rig and also fears it will lead to fracking: “Three years ago, I was lucky enough to move here,” she explains, “My dream was always to live in the Purbecks. I was reading the newspaper and found out that they were planning to do exploratory work here and I was absolutely devastated - this is an area of outstanding natural beauty and people come from all across the world to see the special place that we have.”
“Ever since I moved here,” she continues, “I’ve gone to the Swanage town council meetings virtually every month - there’s been a group of concerned locals wanting to find out health and safety information, the evacuation policy, all these kinds of things and so on, but the council have shown very little interest and actually treated us like were out for trouble. It seems extraordinary as I thought their job was to look after people.”
Local resident, Jack, who prefers not to give his surname agrees. “It’s totally inappropriate for the area - I don’t know how an oil rig could be on the agenda for Swanage - it’s a beautiful destination for people to visit and enjoy the birds, flora and fauna. We’ve made the council commission a risk assessment and that highlighted on numerous accounts how dangerous the access was to the site. It cuts across a massive incline, and the road itself is also a footpath that children use to go to the swimming baths, and holiday makers use to go to the caravan park. There’s no lighting - all the traffic has to come up these inappropriate roads. It’s greed driven.”
Daniel, a concerned citizen who also prefers not to give his surname, has protested at four gas and oil rig sites around the UK. “I was invited by the locals because this has been an ongoing concern. We’ll be here as long as they want so we can facilitate protecting the land and raise awareness of the bigger issues.” He refers to the agreement made at the Paris Climate Talks in 2015 to limit global warming beyond 2 degrees - a critical rise in temperature that scientists believe will cause irreversible damage to the planet: “Why put more holes in the ground when we’ve been told by international institutions that this is impractical and unfeasible?” he asks. “Recommendations in the report says that if we use what we already have in reserves now that we will go over the two degrees of critical warming. If we carry on doing reckless endangerment like this, what will we have left in years to come?”
“Law breakers cannot be law enforcers - all we can do is ask another department of the same club to tell the other one off. There are hundreds of forms of renewable energy and we have all the resources we need on the surface of the planet. The biggest hurdle is finding a way for everyone to agree.”
The exploratory work here is a global issue on a local scale. What do the locals hope to achieve with this last-ditch effort to halt the drilling? Jason says, “We want to tell people what’s going on - that’s our main goal here and it’s a last resort. We’ve really tried all of the methods they wanted us to try. People can come up here, they can write to their local and district councillors, and they can write to their MPs. We’ve had difficulty widening people’s eyes to say, look, this really is going to happen. Well, now it’s here and it’s happening.”
As the light draws in, a group of locals arrive, carrying water bottles and other resources for those staying overnight. Dogwalkers stop to talk and exchange news. The fire is stoked, the beginnings of a meal prepared. Talk turns to a town council meeting that evening - but the drilling is not on the agenda and the residents explain that the meeting is likely to be disbanded if they raise the topic. They’ll probably go anyway.
It’s this strong sense of resilience and campsite camaraderie that fuels everyone here, the belief that if only they can spread the word the battle of David and Goliath proportions could just tip in their favour. “We’re trying to do something really positive here by getting the word out,” Fran concludes, “We’re saying fracking is not acceptable in the north, it’s not acceptable in the south - people do not want this. We live in a beautiful place and that’s something we should be cherishing, not trying to destroy.”
Swanage Council has been contacted for comment.
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