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Fracking fury hits idyllic British village

BALCOMBE, United Kingdom (AFP) ― Louisa Delpy had never protested before, but when she heard that shale gas extraction might begin in her leafy part of the English countryside, she was so furious that she took to the streets.

The 36-year-old mother went with two friends and a home-made sign to the lonely site where test drilling for oil and gas has begun, close to her upmarket village of Balcombe in West Sussex, a fifty-minute train ride from central London.

Three weeks later, the gaggle of demonstrators has mushroomed into a protest camp of hundreds, becoming the focus of a national campaign against the controversial extraction technique known as “fracking.”

Protesters from around Britain have set up dozens of tents, loudspeakers and banners, while crowds surge forward with yells of fury to try to block each truck that drives towards the drilling site.

“I’ve never protested against anything in my life, but look where we are now,” Delpy said.

Waving signs with slogans such as “Frack off!” and “Balcombe’s not for shale,” the campers say they will stay as long as it takes for Cuadrilla, the firm that has pioneered fracking in Britain, to reconsider its involvement.

A prosperous commuter area in the home territory of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party, Balcombe is an unlikely birthplace for a rowdy protest movement.

But many residents say that having objected unsuccessfully through official channels, they feel forced into direct action.

“All the normal forms of democracy seem to have been ignored,” said Stephen White, 59, a filmmaker from a nearby village. “It’s like the Wild West.”

Cuadrilla ― whose chairman is former BP chief John Browne ― has tried to pacify the locals, holding open days and promising not to “ruin the countryside.”

It also says it is merely carrying out test drilling, which could lead to standard oil extraction, fracking, or nothing at all. The plan is to drill a 3,000-foot (915-metre) vertical well in a project lasting up to three months.

But Cuadrilla’s involvement elsewhere with fracking, or hydraulic fracturing ― using huge amounts of pressurized water mixed with chemicals to crack open rock and release natural gas ― has fuelled suspicion.

Protesters bowed their heads for a minute’s silence on Friday when news arrived that drilling had begun.

“It’s a sad day for Balcombe ― but we will win!” declared 52-year-old Glayzer Frackman from Lancashire in the north, who turned activist and changed his name after his house was damaged by minor earthquakes blamed on test drilling.
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