Last night I enjoyed the spectacle of a shale gas public relations car crash in the charming West Sussex village of Balcombe.
Last year shale oil and gas firm Cuadrilla Resources obtained a license to commence exploratory drilling at Lower Stumble, 1 mile south of the village. A hardcover surface has been prepared, and a shallow hole has been drilled on the site.
Under the planning permission granted by West Sussex County Council, Cuadrilla has provision to use hydraulic fracturing at this test borehole. As part of the planning application the company states: “There may be a need to stimulate … by pumping water under pressure into the natural fractures in the shale formations to open them up to allow the gas to flow more freely.” In other words, fracking.
At the request of the ‘No Fracking in Sussex’ group, CEO of Cuadrilla Resources Mark Miller and his right-hand man, COO Eric Vaughan, agreed to speak at Balcombe village hall to answer questions about exploratory shale oil and gas drilling.
The meeting was not a formal consultation, but a voluntary public meeting. The village hall was absolutely packed. All 100 seats were filled, leaving standing room only for another 100-150 more in attendance. A Balcombe resident told me no more than half of the attendees actually lived in the village, with the rest seemingly environmentalists, ecologists and others of an ‘anti-fracking’ persuasion.
It was obvious from the start that most attendees were not overly enamoured with the prospect of their village becoming a fracking site and it didn’t take long before the meeting swiftly descended into an almost out-of-control verbal melee, an oratorical riot against fracking.
Difficult as it may be for Cuadrilla Resources to put across their point of view in such circumstances, they made a total hash of it. Although Cuadrilla stressed it had no firm plans to put its option to commence fracking in Balcombe into practice, very few believed them.
I came away thinking Cuadrilla’s plans to exploit the Weald Basin shale rock of Kent, Sussex and Surrey for oil and gas will be very tough and the meeting had only made an already stiff challenge more difficult.
I cannot imagine for a moment that a major oil firm would have engaged with the local population about so sensitive a subject in this fashion. Decent chaps they may be, but Cuadrilla came across as amateurs.
Should Cuadrilla ever decide to attend a similar public meeting in future, here are my top ten tips for not ‘fracking’ it up.
1. Don’t attend a public meeting about fracking when 99% of the local population had only heard about your plans a few days beforehand
Apart from the crack troupe of anti-fracking campaigners, barely anyone had a clue about what is planned in Balcombe. Such a melting pot of ignorance, confusion and anger does not make for rational, informed debate.
2. Don’t appear too American
The Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer of Cuadrilla Resources are American. Fair enough; the vast majority of global shale gas expertise is to be found in America. But Cuadrilla does have a British senior manager in Peter Turner, head of exploration, from Lancashire. There were a number of comments along the lines of ‘The Americans are taking over our village’. Doesn’t create a good impression in a deeply conservative West Sussex village.
3. Don’t bring along your PR guy who also happens to be a district councillor specialising in planning applications
Nick Sutcliffe, who represents Cuadrilla’s lobbying firm PPS Group, has lobbied the Department of Energy and Climate Change to garner political support for fracking. Mr Sutcliffe is also a councillor who serves on the planning committee at Guildford District Council. Again, doesn’t look good chaps.
4. Don’t allow the chairman to lose control of the floor
Poor Charles Metcalfe, a Balcombe resident of ten years, was unable to cope with the constant interruptions and interjections from an angry audience.
Miller couldn’t get through his highly informative and quite impressive PowerPoint presentation and during the tiresome Q&A, he was endlessly prevented from answering questions in full. Having to deal with all the questions flying around made the Cuadrilla representatives appear shifty, defensive and nervous.
5. Don’t forget to espouse the benefits to the local population
Unfortunately there was no straw poll to ascertain public support for Cuadrilla’s plans, but if there had the number of supporters would have been counted on one hand.
I can’t blame the villagers for their total lack of support for fracking. At no point did Cuadrilla make any mention of potential benefits to the community. No mention of jobs and other economic benefits. It seemed to be all take and no give. With no incentives, why on earth should residents be anything but vehemently opposed?
6. Don’t come ill-prepared
Mark Miller repeatedly tried to assure the meeting that Cuadrilla had no firm plans to frack for oil and gas in Balcombe. But this very lack of a plan only aroused suspicion. If they had no plans, what were they doing there?
7. Don’t suddenly announce that you might have to build a power plant in the village if you find shale gas
Half-way through the meeting Miller said that, actually, Cuadrilla wants to frack for oil, not gas, using the undoubted success story of Wytch Farm in Dorset – which BP developed to be Western Europe’s largest onshore oilfield – as a role model. Great. What happens to the gas? “We may have to build a power plant onsite,” came the reply. Again, this does not impress an increasingly befuddled audience.
8. Don’t allow one-sided, polemic films about the “evils” of fracking to be shown immediately before you make your presentation
Bad move. Made the audience bay for Miller’s blood.
9. Don’t talk like a politician
The good folk of Balcombe became increasingly aggrieved when Miller qualified his virtually every statement with words like ‘possibly’, ‘probably’ and ‘potentially’. Miller particularly got their goat when he began to start his sentences with ‘Typically…’.
10. Be prepared when the vice-chairman of the Parish Council admits it didn’t have a clue what it was doing when it approved the planning application for oil and gas exploratory drilling in its village without telling anybody
And also when the County Council senses that approving a shale oil and gas production license would be unpopular in the extreme and reassures the audience with promises that it now understands the full environmental implications of fracking and has powers to stop shale oil and gas production in the village.
The Balcombe Village Association says they plan to hold another meeting in the coming months. At this stage, I should not expect a return appearance from the CEO of Cuadrilla.