Thursday, 12 July 2012

Fracking activists on trial

Today is the 3rd day of the trial for the fracking activists who stormed Cuardilla's drilling site in Lancashire, climbing the rig and dropping banners. They have been charged with trespass and assault, and are being tried in Preston Magistrates Court.

You can follow updates on twitter with #frackingontrial. Also, the trial appears to have its own website.

The defense for the case relies on the 'necessity of action to prevent damage to property'. This was the defense used by protesters who stormed the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station a few years back. The argument went that turning the power plant on would release large amounts of CO2, causing global warming that would damage property. The defense for this case is that allowing the fracking to go ahead would have caused damage, so performing an illegal activity (i.e. trespass) to stop it becomes legal.

I'm no legal-beagle, so the question for me is, where does the burden of proof lie? Do the protestors have to show beyond doubt that the activity they prevented would certainly have caused damage? Do they have to show a likelihood of damage based on the balance of probabilities? Because over a million wells have been fracked in the US, while contamination issues are limited to about 10 extremely localised sites, and it's only the Cuadrilla site in Blackpool that have experienced felt seismicity. So the balance of probabilities would suggest that fracking does not cause problems unless something (usually poor well cementing) goes wrong (10 in a million is a 1 in 100,000 chance).

Similarly, on the wider global warming issue, we are seeing US green-house gas emissions falling dramatically as a result of shale gas production. I know we all like to think of Americans as gas-guzzling climate-destroyers, but the USA has seen the largest CO2 emissions reductions of any country on the planet since 2006. The reason: electricity from coal generation is down from ~50% to ~30%, with shale gas filling most of that gap. Because gas produces half as much CO2 as coal when burned, making that switch reduces CO2 emissions a lot. It's getting to the point when coal companies are going out of business. Meanwhile, in the UK, coal-fired power is booming as gas prices keep rising, seeing our CO2 emissions. It's becoming clearer and clearer that boosting gas production, using shale gas, reduces gas prices and takes coal off the market, reducing CO2 emissions.

For those who like to talk of Howath's methane leakage rates, it's been taken apart again (for the umpteenth time). I'm aware that a statement from Howarth has been included in the case, I wonder if any of the rebuttals have?

Or is the level of evidence required lower than that? Is it a question of acting in good faith? I've no doubt that the fracktivists have a genuine belief that fracking is certain to cause damage. Is a genuine belief (regardless of evidence) sufficient to justify action? As I say, the whole legal edifice confuses and nauseates me in equal measure, so I've no idea what the requirements for this case will be. The verdict is due tomorrow I believe, so I guess we'll get to find out soon.

I'll finish by saying that, whatever the outcome of this particular trial, I am in general concerned by the gradual erosion of our civil liberties. I don't want to see any decisions taken that curtail a person's right to (non-violent) protest, regardless of the fact that I am in favour of (strongly-regulated) fracking in the UK, so I would like to see these guys acquitted.

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