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.
I recorded the Q&A on my iPhone, apologies for the sound quality, I’ve cleaned it up as best I could.
Posted by | January 12, 2012, 12:08 PM
Hi Tim – great article,
“Don’t appear too American” made me smile ”
it was a very important meeting as you have detailed, repetition unnecessary.
Couple of points of clarification:
There were over 170 chairs, over 100 people standing and others listening outside that couldn’t get in. The Hall manager confirmed that there were around 300 attendees.
As for the other half seemingly being “environmentalists, ecologists and others of an ‘anti-fracking’ persuasion.”
There was a peculiarly (and frankly, in some quarters, shamefully) parochial response to some of the non-Balcombites who came to support the meeting.
There were residents of surrounding villages, eg. Cuckfield, Ardingly, West Hoathly, Sharpthorne etc., and others from Forest Row – all of whose drinking water is potentially under threat from this proposal. About 10 people came from Brighton, including Will Cottrell, Chairman of the Brighton energy Co-op, who gave the presentation. There were a few from Redhill and a few from the very newly formed “Lewes Against Fracking” group.
I booked the Hall, started the “NO Fracking in Sussex” Facebook Group and, along with Will, called the meeting. I live in Sharpthorne, 4 miles away and was quizzed in the pub later about my “outsider” status
There were rumblings in the village earlier in the day, about expectations of unsavoury types arriving. This throwback attitude is absolutely startling.
Most of the residents of Balcombe did not know what was in store for them. Thanks only to the tireless efforts of a number of people – most of whom (with four notable exceptions) do not live in Balcombe – they now do. Yet some of those who’ve worked very hard with me to get this out from under the radar, were given tangibly frosty vibes.
Time to embrace more of a SLIGHTLY wider community consciousness people?Posted by | January 12, 2012, 12:55 PM
Vanessa, many thanks to you and the others that made last night happen, I for one (Balcombe resident) was really impressed by how well the meeting was publicised and organised. Keep us updated via the FB on how we can contribute to taking appropriate next steps.Posted by Justine Gillen | January 12, 2012, 5:36 PM
I am currently completing work on a Public Affairs Diploma with the CIPR.
For my final assignment I have chosen to write about public meetings, persuasion and public acceptance in the context of shale gas exploration in the UK and Ireland.
I live in Brighton, so have partly chosen to look at this because Balcombe is not too far away and I need to have a realistic target group of people to interview.
The paper I am preparing will not be for public consumption, and is purely for the purposes of my course. Would you be prepared to answer a few questions. I am thinking of setting up in a pub in Balcombe for a day at some point in March and trying to conduct short interviews for my study with up to 10 people who attended the meeting.
I look forward to hearing from you and I hope you don’t mind helping. If you have any friends who attended the meeting and are willing to be interviewed too this would be great.
I will be of course be willing to buy everyone a drink.
Andrew OliverPosted by andrewolib | February 16, 2012, 4:23 PM
An excellent article – I particularly liked item No.10 on the list!!!Posted by Douglas Wragg | January 13, 2012, 1:01 PM
Given that the spotlight is now focussed on this matter, it should not be possible for any “done deals” to take place without first having public consultation.
Vigilance be our watchword.
Thank you for your kind words, Douglas.
Follow the money. http://www.balcombeestate.co.uk/Posted by timprobert | January 13, 2012, 1:03 PM
> Don’t allow the chairman to lose control of the floor
Fascinated to know how a speaker is supposed to achieve this…Posted by mattwardman2000 | January 14, 2012, 4:59 PM
I imagine a speaker would pause and not resume answering questions until the audience is under control and not constantly interrupting. Rather like MPs do.Posted by timprobert | January 14, 2012, 5:14 PM
New Cuadrilla docs show Balcombe water IS vulnerable to fracking:Posted by gasdrillinginbalcombe | January 16, 2012, 11:29 PM