Hands Off Our Forth: 2000 protest against unconventional gas extraction

Mike A and Pete C report on the communities in Scotland organising against the growing threat of fracking.

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Around 2,000 people joined hands across the Forth Road Bridge on Sunday in a protest against plans for unconventional gas extraction. Organised by grassroots anti-fracking campaigns across Scotland, Hands Over Our Forth was an uplifting event that captured much of the same spirit of hope we saw around the independence referendum.

As we assembled for the demo on the bridge it was striking how different it looked to any demonstration we might have had on this issue two years ago.  There were a host of local campaigning groups like Frack Off Fife and Our Forth Portobello, who in the build up to the protest printed and distributed 20,000 leaflets and made the national press and radio. Many of these are based on Yes groups with strong representation from women, and, more often than not, based in working class areas that have not seen much political activity for decades.

Portobello is one of the areas of Edinburgh that faces out onto the Firth of Forth and is surrounded by former mining areas. As with the land running down to the river from the Fife coalfield on the opposite side, these areas are riddled underneath with a complex of coal seams that run out under the Forth.

It’s these seams and the four billion tons of coal they comprise that the energy companies want to get hold of and burn at high temperatures to produce syngas. The campaign draws its strength from the knowledge that local people have of the coal industry – ex-miners know that effectively uncontrolled burning of coal seams will be a disaster. It was no coincidence that organisations such as Yes Kelty from the heartland of the Fife coalfield were very visible on Sunday.

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Earlier in the week the Scottish Government had announced, to great fanfare, an extension of the planning moratorium on fracking to include UCG (Underground Coal Gasification). This came as a result of the pressure and campaigning already under way. However the welcome this received from campaigners was shattered the very next day when it was announced that test drilling would be allowed, and that it would be conducted by INEOS – a giant multinational with a filthy record towards local communities and local democracy. Allowing them to begin drilling gives them time to both develop supporting infrastructure and to use their immense wealth to continue powerful lobbying behind the scenes.

The SNP leadership argue that any ban must be based on scientific evidence, which is why they have permitted the tests. But there is already plenty of evidence worldwide showing the devastating health and environmental issues associated with these technologies. In reality, the door is being left wide open to the likes of INEOS by the pro-business wing of the SNP, such as Ewing, who are entirely comfortable with the exploitation of our natural resources for profit and are happy to do business with billionaires Jim Ratcliffe of INEOS and destroyer of precious natural environments Donald Trump. The recent transfer of water services to a private sector operator does nothing to dispel concern over the direction of travel in their policies.

Fracking is becoming an issue that exposes the fundamental problems with a “national” party and the tensions that are being thrown up by newly radicalised members who have joined it since the referendum. The foundation of SMAUG (SNP Members Against Unconventional Gas) is a very welcome development and many SNP members are deeply unhappy with the current “even-handed” policy.

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Activists from RISE, of which rs21 members are part, had banners on both sides of the bridge and those in Fife distributed 400 leaflets calling for an immediate ban on test drilling that were well received. As would be expected the Scottish Green Party was visible, but apart from RISE banners on both sides of the bridge, any organised presence from the rest of the left and the Labour Party was notably absent.

This is a battle that has the potential to deepen and become more militant as campaigners both seek an unequivocal statement on banning fracking and similar technologies from the Scottish Government, and organise against the intensification of activity by the drilling companies.

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