How fracking is radicalising rural voters in the Tory heartlands

Whatever its future in England, fracking has already left a troubled legacy and created a new type of activist.

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Miranda Cox was asleep at her home in Kirkham, Lancashire, when the earthquake struck on the morning of 1 April  2011. Deep in the earth below, a nearby fracking site had unleashed a tremor of 2.3 magnitude on the Richter scale. The impact sent vibrations roaring to the surface, where they “shook the ground and woke us up”, Cox recalls.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, was immediately suspended across the UK. But as energy companies such as Cuadrilla Resources pushed to continue, so Cox, then a 43-year-old mother of two, began to educate herself about the process by which water and chemicals are pumped underground to release gas from shale rock.

At first she was open-minded; the government claimed fracking would provide well-paid jobs and a secure energy supply. But the lack of a single, independent regulator made her suspicious. And then in 2016, when Sajid Javid, then communities secretary, over-rode the county council’s rejection of a new test site, Cox shifted from concerned resident to committed campaigner. “That was the moment I joined the dots, picked up my placard and took part in a demo,” she told me.

When we met one recent morning she was standing with a group of protesters outside the gates of the Cuadrilla-owned test site in Lancashire. Wearing waterproofs and a green woolly hat, Cox, who was elected as a town councillor in 2015, looked flushed from dancing.

“We sometimes put on the Pink Panther theme tune when the police come,” she said, after she observed officers removing protesters from in front of a waiting van. “We have to laugh, because we are going into winter and you’ve got to keep your humanity.”

Exploratory fracking started again here at Preston New Road, near Blackpool, in October, making it the first place to extract shale gas anywhere in England for seven years. But a series of tremors has repeatedly suspended production. A total of 37 minor seismic events were recorded between 15 October and 4 November: all too small to be felt on the surface but some large enough to force the operation to pause for checks. 

Opponents fear that if the country goes “all out for shale”, as David Cameron once hoped, the result will be mass rural industrialisation. Experts say more than 6,000 wells would need to be drilled in England in order to replace just half of future gas imports. At the start of 2018, these accounted for over 60 per cent of UK demand.

In response, industry and government point to the potential economic gain. Full production at Preston New Road would result in 1 per cent of the revenue going to the local community and the council retaining 100 per cent of business rates. Cuadrilla says that its contributions