Firth of Forth

Resistance: The people fighting fracking in Scotland

Holding an umbrella upside down so its spike points towards the floor, Bill Frew runs a finger clockwise around the circumference of its handle, then slides his hand down to press a catch and open the red parasol.

“This is what happens with fracking,” he says as the canopy widens. “A small area is affected on the surface but the devastation unseen below can affect a much larger area.”

Frew is inside Pilrig St Paul’s Church, off Leith Walk in Edinburgh.

It’s shortly after lunchtime and in the quiet of the vestry we draw up chairs and talk.

Frew has been up since around 5am and to be frank he looks exhausted.

He has dark rings under his eyes and the 65 year old still has a long day ahead, hosting meetings with fellow environmental campaigners before embarking on a two hour drive to the Dumfriesshire home he shares with his wife, Loraine.

The Frews live in Canonbie, a sleepy Scots village straddling the River Esk, just south of Langholm and a couple of miles north of the border with England.

It’s a tranquil place of rustic charms that Sir Walter Scott immortalised in his poem, Marmion.

Bill and Loraine moved there in 2006 after he retired from a 35 year career with Perth and Kinross Council, both anticipating a secure and stress free retirement in an idyllic part of Scotland.

“We bought an old Victorian property with derelict outbuildings and created a small guest house and I built two holiday cottages,” Bill says in his soft Ayrshire brogue.

His property lies just outside Canonbie and business comes from tourism, mostly anglers from around the world who come to fish the River Esk in hope they’ll hook its prized salmon.

It’s a leisure spot with a glowing international reputation but running a guest house can be hard graft and it has taken Bill and Loraine the best part of a decade to build up their business.

Yet the peace of mind they’ve earned in Canonbie is endangered, an issue that first came to light in 2007 when Bill spotted a white piece of paper nailed to a tree about three hundred yards from his home.

The official council document was to notify locals of a mining proposal by Dart Energy, a company that wanted to extract coal bed methane on land owned locally by the Duke of Buccleuch, Britain’s largest private landowner.

The planning application was one of 20 proposals submitted by Dart at the time, and – after all were classed as minor, individual applications – they were approved by Dumfries and Galloway Council between 2007 and 2010.

Bill shakes his head wearily. Eight years on and he remains aghast that the council didn’t consider the plans as one large-scale development, arguing they should have been rejected outright as the consequences for Canonbie could be catastrophic.

“We were a local business and they’d given us planning permission to extend it for the cottages for tourism, and then a year or two later they approve 20 coal bed methane drilling sites around the village – all on the Duke’s estate. There were only two neighbourhood notifications,” he says.

After learning of Dart’s proposed project with the Duke’s company, Buccleuch Estates, the Frews started knocking on village doors and to their astonishment found that many locals knew nothing of what was planned.

It was then that Bill and Loraine’s campaign began in earnest.

They produced newsletters and held public meetings. When support grew among the 1500 or so people in the locality, they formed a group called the Canonbie and District Residents’ Association.

At the same time, they had to learn complex scientific material, a sharp learning curve that was aided by conversations with friends and environmental groups such as Friends of The Earth Scotland.

Indeed, eight years ago the Frews knew nothing about unconventional gas extraction but today both can claim to have a degree of expertise.

Bill cites a document submitted to the council when Dart first applied to drill, revealing there were 20 sites planned, each around one acre in size.

For Dart to drill on just one site would involve some 400 heavy good vehicle movements, Bill explains, adding that the industry calculation for each well was roughly 2000 to 4000 HGV vehicles moving in and out of the area.

Moreover, he points out that the 20 sites touted by Dart were just phase one of a masterplan although no further details have been released publicly because it’s deemed privileged commercial information.

There could 100 drilling sites in the offing, or even more. But no one will say.

In response, the council said that all the correct statutory procedures were followed and that the Frews’ formal complaints, submitted some time after permission was granted, were not upheld by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

But Bill insists the system failed the people of Canonbie and the local community were kept in the dark.

He pauses and then continues in his measured tone. He says there could be serious implications for public health and cites some of the environmental problems caused by fracking in Australia and the USA.

One spillage, or a single burst pipe of contaminated water could, he claims, pollute the River Esk and destroy the reputation of a tourist attraction that brings thousands of people to Canonbie each year, tourists who eat in restaurants, spend money in shops and stay in B&Bs and hotels.

For her part, Loraine says the last few years have been a “constant strain” and that although some people in Canonbie are scared to speak out, she and her husband will not be cowed by Buccleuch’s power and influence.

She says that much of the property and land, in and around Canonbie, is owned by Buccleuch Estates while many residents are tenants of Buccleuch, or employees.

However, Buccleuch Estates is on record as saying: “You have to separate what are legitimate technical concerns about safety and the technology from those vociferous voices who don’t want to see any economic development in the area.”

“I have little sympathy for that because it behoves us all to try to create economic development.”

“There is a vociferous minority who aren’t elected by anyone and they purport to speak for a community when they have no democratic mandate”

The Frews’ life is now consumed with the struggle against Buccleuch and now the Scottish Government, who will make the final decision on whether fracking and coal bed methane extraction can take place in Scotland when its current moratorium is lifted.

“If these proposals go ahead our business is knackered and we’ve invested three quarters of a million plus. In terms of the local tourism industry, we could be facing decades of fossil fuel activity,” Bill says.

A WEEK LATER on a dank evening in Stirlingshire, I am inside Bannockburn Community Centre. The hall is warm and bright and Ineos is offering tea and coffee while arguing the case for a shale gas industry in Scotland.

I’d attended the company’s event in Grangemouth a few weeks earlier – one of many community meetings hosted by the firm recently in Scotland’s central belt – and it’s the same set-up tonight, with staff on hand alongside information boards, a television screen and mini computers flashing touch-screen presentations.

There’s hardly anyone here though and the hall is almost silent aside from the background chatter of the television.

Ineos’ presentation is slick. In the centre of the hall sits a large wooden table with around a dozen glossy information brochures laid out: Fracking-What Every Scot Should Know; Ineos-Working for Scotland; Community and the Ineos Promise.

The latter pamphlet says that 64,000 Scottish jobs could be created and that Ineos is committed to having “regular and in-depth community engagement”.

There is a promise of vast financial benefits for local people, some £2.5bn in total that could, Ineos contends, greatly benefit regional economies and public services.

“Shale gas extraction has transformed communities in the USA”, one brochure claims.

Another leaflet – Additives Used in Fracking – offers reassurance that the company has a “wealth of expertise in the safe use, handling and storing of chemicals”.

It explains that fracking fluid is 99.5 per cent water and sand while only 0.5 per cent is comprised of chemicals, adding that all additives must be first approved by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency: indeed, many are already used “in the purification of our drinking water”.

I learn that fracking fluid chemicals include biocides, sodium carbonate, hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol, which is used in anti-freeze.

I pick up an Ineos newspaper with an op-ed style piece by Tom Pickering, the firm’s operations director.

He claims that much misinformation has been disseminated by critics of fracking and asks that people have open minds.

“Shale gas presents Scotland with a once-in-a-generation-opportunity to change the lives of people”, Pickering writes, although a few paragraphs after he concedes, “There are no risk-free energy solutions”.

Candidly, he acknowledges there have been “some issues” with fracking in the USA but he qualifies this: “This isn’t America, this is Scotland – where we will have one of the most rigorous regulatory regimes in the world.”

As I read on, an Ineos employee approaches smiling and asks if she can assist. I ask about the maps pinned to display boards showing the Central Belt towns where fracking could occur.

Pointing to mapped Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) close to densely populated areas, she explains where fracking is disallowed and then the bureaucratic process Ineos would have to undertake before it could begin.

She echoes Pickering’s words regarding more stringent environmental regulations in the UK and – almost whispering – his claim of opponents spreading misinformation.

“There’s been quite a lot of em…I hesitate to use this word but…scaremongering,” she says.

I OFFER thanks and leave with a bundle of brochures and outside I meet Billy McChord who is standing in the rain handing out leaflets.

What does FRACKING mean?” asks the front page of a glossy publication he offers.

McChord – an earnest man with thick grey hair brushed high off his face – is from the nearby Raploch area of Stirling and he’s involved with the Scottish left-wing political movement, RISE.

As we speak, he hands a leaflet to an elderly man exiting the building.

“Here are some facts on fracking that might interest you. Would you like one?” The man takes one before walking off into the night.

I ask McChord if he’s been inside and the 54-year-old shakes his head.

“I think just 25 people have been in so far. I hope it’s more impressive than one of their recent meetings in Alloa when their video broke down,” he says.

“There were about 80 people that night. People were saying things like, ‘Is this the standard we can expect from your fracking operations?’ There was quite a lot of ridicule.”

McChord is a sociology lecturer at Forth Valley College and he explains that after campaigning for Scottish independence he turned his attention to fracking after the No vote in September 2014.

“It was something new to put my energy into so I started finding out about fracking, watching videos and stuff. The more I looked at it, the more shocked I became,” McChord says.

He is certainly pro-active.

He helped form Clackmannanshire Against Unconventional Gas Extraction (CAUGE) and Stirling Against Unconventional Gas Extraction (SAUGE) and regularly campaigns on the streets.

He is deeply concerned about pollution and the potential harm it could cause to Scotland’s food and drink industries and he worries about Raploch, the council estate near the Wallace Monument where he lives, and other Stirlingshire communities suffering deprivation.

“Grangemouth has been an area of poverty for years and how long has Ineos been there?” he says. “It’s dire and it’s been like that for years.”

I’d heard similar criticism expressed outside the Grangemouth Ineos event but then again positive comments too, mostly about the jobs the company provides.

It’s clear that feelings are mixed and it remains to be seen what impact the Ineos charm offensive may have.

ON RETURN home I contact a prominent anti-fracking critic called Mel Kelly and ask her views on the Ineos campaign.

“I went to a public meeting in Cumbernauld. I arrived about half way through and everyone’s impression seemed to be that ‘you ask questions but they don’t answer them’,” she says.

Kelly is a business analyst but the mother-of-two from Irvine has a passion for citizen journalism and spends much of her spare time investigating fracking and speaking at public meetings.

She is knife-sharp and isn’t afraid to take on money and power even when faced with threats of litigation.

In 2014, for example, she was threatened with legal action by a coal gas firm called Five Quarter who said they’d sue her for “malicious falsehood”.

Kelly had written wrote a 42-page report entitled Theft Of Austerity Britain’s Coal to raise awareness of what she viewed as the dangers of underground coal gasification (UCG) an industrial process to obtain gas proposed for both the Solway Firth and the Firth of Forth.

She’d criticised Five Quarter and on 8 May 2014 she received an email from a law firm called Muckle.

They ordered her to “cease and desist” distributing her report or face costly legal action – viewed by Kelly as an attempt at corporate gagging known as a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

Muckle’s email stated: “Our client reserves the right to issue proceedings against you seeking relief for defamation and/or malicious falsehood. For the avoidance of doubt our client would also be seeking to recover legal costs and interest. Such costs could be substantial.”

Kelly’s response was to go public, and Five Quarter was accused of corporate bullying by Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Green Party.

I ask what her reaction was to Muckle’s email?

“I burst out laughing,” she says.

“I basically saw it as an attempt to silence me. I emailed them back and said, ‘I’d like a reply by 5.30pm tonight explaining which law you intend to use’. And I never heard another thing. I think the publicity on that helped, as it was the last thing they wanted.”

Kelly’s heard nothing since and – unfazed – says she’ll continue campaigning, “no matter what”. Five Quarter declined to comment.

OTHER ACTIVISTS adopt a less adversarial approach and on the east coast of Scotland I meet Juliana Muir in a seaside suburb of Edinburgh called Portobello.

It’s a milky grey morning around 10am, and she’s waiting at a green van selling coffee on a promenade near the beach.

As we shake hands, swimmers jog past as they head across sand towards a mercury sea, hardy souls known as the Wild Ones, and we watch as they splash into a gentle swell and throw their arms forwards to dive into the Firth of Forth.

It’s a hobby they pursue in all weathers, Muir says.

She has long brown hair and smiling eyes and describes herself as a “visual artist”.

She’s also a critic of unconventional gas development and has made a film to highlight the dangers of UCG.

Pointing to sea, Muir explains that five licences have been granted for the Firth of Forth, adding she believes they pose a grave threat to both the water and Portobello.

“I’m a mum of two who lives in Portobello, who walks this prom every day to take her kids to school,” she says.

“This is my home. I’ve never protested about anything in my life. If UCG was to go ahead I’d be selling my house and leaving, from what I know.”

She’s a passionate speaker and wants her film to elicit a similar response.

It was made with the help of filmmaker Ruth Barrie, a response to what Muir views is the “ineffectiveness of people holding placards”, which, she says, is “clichéd protesting” that doesn’t engage the public anymore.

Our Forth features the Wild Ones as both she and Barrie thought the idea of the sea and swimmers, taking the plunge in all weathers, would offer powerful imagery.

Muir mocks a shiver, and says that her grandmother once owned a boarding house in Portobello before the family moved to Skegness, England, apparently because the climate was “warmer”.

She grew up in the Lincolnshire seaside town but for the past 20 years has lived in the Edinburgh area, having chosen to return to her family’s roots after graduating in 1996 with a fine art degree from Birmingham University.

It was December 2013 when Muir moved to Portobello with her husband and two children, aged six and four, and she loves the place, adding that her home is nearby, as is the art studio where she paints, sculpts and ponders ideas for installations.

Art has been Muir’s life and until last year she’d never been involved in politics.

“Just the opposite in fact,” she says. “I never even watched the news to be honest as I thought it was just entertainment to programme you about something very finite, for a finite period of time… until the next thing comes along.”

“I didn’t like what it did to my brain. ‘Aw, a hurricane, oh my god everybody, send all your pennies… aw it’s OK now, so don’t think about it again, because something else has happened.’ I didn’t like that.”

She follows news now though, a consequence of Scotland’s independence referendum and the wave of political energy that galvanised many people in the wake of last year’s No vote.

In the aftermath of that historic juncture, some people Muir knew joined political parties, including the Greens and the SNP, but she chose instead to protest against fracking.

She had disagreed with fracking in a “casual way” but began reading up and talking to anti-fracking activists across Britain. The more Muir learned, the greater her belief that fracking is a threat and she formed a campaigning group called Our Forth.

Our Forth has since constituted as a charity and it has linked with Friends of the Earth, Frack Off and 38 Degrees. Some 50,000 flyers have been distributed and a petition has secured around 10,000 signatures.

Almost every weekend Muir and her friends are on Portobello’s streets and they’ve also lobbied the Scottish Government; one of their members helped establish SNP Members Against Unconventional Gas, aka SMAUG, an internal pressure group named after a dragon from Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit.

However, Our Forth’s bête noire – a company called Cluff Natural Resources – argue that this new industry could support thousands of jobs and add significantly to the Scottish economy.

“While all in the industry are very aware of the potential and perceived hazards associated with UCG, it is extremely difficult to see how these could manifest themselves in a Scottish context due to the comprehensive UCG specific guidance and the regulatory framework which already exists in the UK,” Cluff says in response to fears over pollution.

They added: “We are confident this will be confirmed by the study being proposed during the moratorium process and then, as a nation, we will have to decide whether we continue to shirk the responsibility for producing the gas required to power Scottish industry and heat our homes or whether we put our trust in the skills and experience of Scottish engineers and regulators to develop a new innovative industry which would create thousands of new jobs and add significantly to the Scottish economy.”

But Muir doesn’t accept this, countering there should be a cost-benefit analysis and arguing that employment might be lost elsewhere, if pollution should affect the nation’s fishing, tourism and food and drink industries.

We’re called Our Forth…just to say, we live here, we work here, we have our children here, this is our place and we should be informed and consulted. We should have the choice. I love the name. I think it’s really powerful,” she says.

AS MUIR and I chat, one of the Wild Ones appears.

Dr Oonagh O’Brien is an anthropologist at Queen Margaret University who grew up in Portobello. She says she panicked on first hearing about Cluff’s plans for the Forth.

“We love swimming here and my understanding is that wherever UCG has been tried, it has done damage to the water. I Iove this water. I just can’t believe that we’re thinking of doing something that could potentially harm it,” she says.

Fresh-faced after a swim, O’Brien is about to embark on a 14 mile jog from Portobello to the Forth Road Bridge. There, she’ll meet hundreds of fellow environmental campaigners for a major demonstration called Hands Off Our Forth, the plan being for protestors to link hands and span the iconic bridge while demanding an all-out ban on UCG.

O’Brien says they have international support: “UCG has been very damaging in Australia and we’ve been getting massive support from people there for this protest, in that they are going to hold hands over their River Forth today in solidarity, in Tasmania.”

“In north of Holland, houses have been collapsing where gas has been extracted, and our houses already have problems with subsidence due to the coal mines. House prices could collapse,” she says.

Muir is going too. She’s organised a bus to leave Portobello Town Hall at noon. When we arrive there, the greyness is lifting and the weather remarkably balmy.

Our Forth is out in force. On arrival at the bridge, the driver parks near a hot food stand called the Three Bridges Takeaway. People are out in the sun with their dogs and children and stewards direct placard-holding protestors as blue and white Saltires flutter in the breeze.

May the Forth Be With You. Let’s get rid of fracking threat so we can live long and prosper,” someone has written in yellow chalk on a blackboard.

On the bridge, I meet Bruce Naughton, a former Scottish Labour Party member from Edinburgh who recently joined the SNP. “I don’t like fracking and I don’t like UCG. We should be aiming for energy efficiency via renewables, no hydrocarbons really .”

Almost 2,000 people are here and at 2pm they link hands to form a human chain, watched by puzzled motorists who rubberneck in heavy traffic slowly driving north.

It’s an impressive turnout particularly in light of the fact that the Scottish Government announced a moratorium on UCG a few days earlier.

“We have committed to carry out a wide-ranging research programme, followed by an extensive public consultation, which will allow all interested parties to express their views,” the Scottish Government says, adding this will allow time to examine the potential impacts of new technology.

That news was welcome, people say. But despite that minor victory they have still turned up in droves to demand an outright ban.

The message from the bridge is loud and clear – these protestors don’t want fracking and they don’t want UCG.

Two people who weren’t at the Forth Road Bridge for Hands off Our Forth were Bill and Loraine Frew.

The couple didn’t make the journey from Canonbie as September is the busiest month of the year for their guest house.

Bill never gets a minute, as he explained when we first met at Pilrig St Paul’s Church in Edinburgh, the day he held the umbrella upside down and its red canopy widened, a creative take on fracking as his battle with Buccleuch Estates continues.

Dart is no longer involved with the project at Canonbie but Bill says the plans will go ahead if coal bed methane extraction is sanctioned by the Scottish Government, as Buccleuch will simply bring in another partner.

For its part, Buccleuch Estates says “any suggestion that Buccleuch was planning to undertake fracking in the Canonbie area is incorrect.”

A spokesman for Buccleuch continued: “There has never been an intention to undertake fracking.”

“We had planned to establish if there was a viable supply of coal bed methane gas in the area and received planning permission to test drill.”

“Even if there were a viable source it would not require fracking.”

“In addition there is a moratorium in place regarding unconventional gas that means test drilling will not happen for the time being.”

“It is regrettable that throughout the process there seemed to be a lack of understanding over what was actually being proposed.”

Loraine is unimpressed.

She says that although fracking is often used as a generic term to describe all unconventional gas activity, the Canonbie community is well informed about all forms of UG and understands that coal bed methane is extracted at less deep levels, adding that “although it may not initially require well stimulation, a significant proportion of coal bed methane wells are subsequently fracked.”

“Given that SEPA fracking licences at Canonbie were only finally surrendered recently,” she continues,”it is pretty clear to us that it is Buccleuch who lacks understanding over what was actually being proposed.”

Bill has met the Duke personally and – breaking into a smile – says they shared “an exchange of free and frank views” adding “we made it quite clear that we think he’s controlling the destiny of all the people who live here.”

His fight continues but Bill’s remit is now broader than representing Canonbie and District Residents’ Association.

He is also chair of Broad Alliance, a coalition of communities from Scotland who have come together in one of the largest environmental movements the country has witnessed for decades.

When we first met in St Pilrigs, it was ahead of an afternoon of workshops that he and Loraine were hosting for Scotland’s anti-fracking movement and the 30 attendees included McChord and Muir.

The activists learned about planning and regulation, public consultation, media relations and community activism.

They also talked about strategy and how to harness the thousands of people across Scotland who are stridently opposed to unconventional gas development.

“A year ago we were having a series of informal get togethers and somebody suggested formalising and setting up an alliance of community groups – so we can focus our efforts on agreed issues and speak with the one voice,” says Bill.

“We’ve got no money, absolutely no money. and we’ve got jobs to do and businesses to run and no money.”

“It’s about saying we’re going to do a lot of things, coming together so we can say with one voice to the SNP, that there are thousands of people in these communities who – if you don’t make the right decision – are going to wonder why they are supporting you.”

All films of fracking campaigners by Tom Allan.

All photography by Tom Allan, except for the photos of Mel Kelly and Billy McChord, which are by Angela Catlin.

  1. “There is a vociferous minority who aren’t elected by anyone and they purport to speak for a community when they have no democratic mandate”

    Was the estate spokesperson referring to Richard Scott, aka the Duke of Buccleuch?

  2. Morning Billy,

    I read with interest the revised ‘Resistance’ article this morning (22/12/2015).

    I see our comment that was supposed to be a ‘right of response’ was not included in the original version despite us meeting your stated deadline and topic guidance. The fact that it was pasted into the article a week or so after it was published, and no doubt already read by most, is hardly a fair right of reply.

    Secondly despite your promise to publish our comments in full, you only ran half of the comment – is there any explanation for this? The second half of the comment was directly related to the topic of your original request.

    For your reader’s benefit here is the full comment:

    ““While all in the industry are very aware of the potential and perceived hazards associated with UCG, it is extremely difficult to see how these could manifest themselves in a Scottish context due to the comprehensive UCG specific guidance and the regulatory framework which already exists in the UK. We are confident this will be confirmed by the study being proposed during the moratorium process and then, as a nation, we will have to decide whether we continue to shirk the responsibility for producing the gas required to power Scottish industry and heat our homes or whether we put our trust in the skills and experience of Scottish engineers and regulators to develop a new innovative industry which would create thousands of new jobs and add significantly to the Scottish economy.”

    Despite the obvious bias of the Ferret platform I’m generally willing to contribute, however if this is the level of integrity we can expect from Ferret journalists going forward please stop wasting the time of our advisors and refrain from asking us to comment in the future.



    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Please note that the comment from Cluff was included when our story was first published last Wednesday. Secondly, we offered the right of reply to all parties mentioned in the article and published comments from everyone who replied. With regards to INEOS, for example, we also published links to their website which has extensive information regarding the case for fracking and we’re more than happy to add any links from Cluff.

      We published the first paragraph of your comment but please note that I have now added the second paragraph into the piece.

      Best wishes for Christmas,

      Billy Briggs.

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Please note that our story did include a comment from Cluff when first published last week. We included the first paragraph of your response and I’ve now added the second par.

    We offered the right of reply to everyone mentioned in our story.

    With regards to INEOS, for example, we also published links to its website plus documents arguing the case for fracking so there is extensive information on the issue available to our readers – we’d be pleased to do likewise for Cluff.

    Best wishes,

    Billy Briggs.

  4. Andrew,

    I’ve no idea what you mean? Your comment was included in the original version published last week and I’ve now added the 2nd par of that comment.

    I authored the report and did not delete your comment at any point.

    Call you call me on 07758-322-193 please if you want to discuss further.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.