Robert Rand, BURN Editor

One of the pleasures of traveling the world is spending time with foreign taxi cab drivers. What visitor to London, Moscow, Bangkok or Buenos Aires hasn’t hopped into a cab, engaged a driver in conversation, and come away with some real insight into local events?

That happened to me recently in Eastbourne, an old British resort town situated next to Beachy Head – a towering  cliff with chalk white shoulders that hovers above the English Channel. Eastbourne is on Britain’s southeast coast, near the place William the Conquerer fought in 1066. It’s also not far from a village called Balcombe, where a more contemporary battle is underway about fracking, the controversial technology (also known as hydraulic fracturing) that inserts vast quantities of water and chemicals into the ground to extract natural gas and oil from shale formations.

I’ll get back to the cabbie in a moment, but first the fracking backstory. Proponents say it’s a safe and effective way to collect shale gas and oil. Its many opponents say the technology’s mix of water and chemicals is toxic and harms the environment.

In the US, fracking has boosted shale gas and oil extraction to such an extent that energy self-sufficiency seems within reach. It has also unleashed serious debate in America and abroad about fracking’s capacity to taint groundwater and, through the methane that’s released in the process, warm the planet.

In the UK, hydraulic fracturing was suspended two years ago after the fracking of Britain’s first shale gas well was blamed for triggering several small earthquakes in northern England. The ban was lifted last December, shortly before the British Geological Survey (BGS) reported that shale gas reserves in the north alone are much greater than previously thought.

Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the British Treasury, said the BGS analysis “confirms the huge potential that shale gas has for the UK.”  The Telegraph newspaper concluded that shale gas in northern England could meet the country’s gas needs for the next 40 years.

With respect to the rest of the country, the BGS study said, “other areas in the UK have shale gas and shale oil potential,” including southern coastal regions. With a strong shale wind at its back, the British government has issued 176 licenses this year for onshore oil and gas exploration, including exploratory drilling near Balcombe.

The anti-fracking demonstrations in Balcombe began in July and targeted the energy company Cuadrilla, which plans to frack shale formations there. The controversy is a classic developer vs. environmentalist tussle. Fracking opponents have boisterously made their case, and they’ve made the front pages of England’s newspapers as well.  “The grassroots protests in the village of Balcombe against fracking have sparked a countrywide rebellion as villages up and down the country vow they will also blockade any attempts to drill,” the Telegraph reported. The BBC has also given the story wide coverage.

Cuadrilla began test drilling for oil in Balcombe on August 2, although fracking was not yet carried out.

All of this was on my taxi driver’s mind when I entered his vehicle a week ago. Our conversation went on for quite some time (it continued even after I reached my destination), but it boiled down to something like this:

“You’re from America, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Lots of fracking there.”

“Yes.”

“The Arab kingdoms are frightfully worried, you know, because you Americans won’t be purchasing their oil much longer, thanks to all that shale drilling.”

“Yes. The U.S. might even become an exporter of oil. But what’s the story with fracking here in England?”

“Some of us don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“Let me put it this way. How big is Texas?”

“Pretty big.”

“Did you know you can fit about five Englands into Texas?”

“No, I didn’t. But what’s your point?”

“Your country is big, and fracking easily can take place in places where nobody lives. Our country is small, and fracking is more likely to occur right outside my window.”

End of conversation. According to my cabbie, the case for NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) is especially compelling in the UK, where the fear of negative-fracking-consequence is palpable and very close to home. As he put it, “We will feel it more than you.”

The problem is, at least for fracking opponents in England, a lot of British government officials would like to feel the kind of shale gas and oil boom currently underway in the US. They argue that shale drilling will lead to lower energy prices in the UK. Boris Johnson, the London mayor and a fracking supporter, has even offered to open up the streets of Shakespeare’s city to hydraulic fracturing if the bounty be good.

Which one day soon will probably cause my cabbie and the people of Balcombe to utter what Buckingham said to his sovereign in Shakespeare’s Henry VI:

         Such as my heart doth tremble to unfold.

         A sort of naughty persons, lewdly bent…

        Have practised dangerously against your state,

        Dealing with witches and with conjurers…

        Raising up wicked spirits from under ground.