SALFORD, England — Just a few yards from the messy camper van where he now spends his nights, Hytham Chlouk points through some winter-stricken trees at what he calls "the death star."
It's a giant derrick that rises high in a clearing behind a perimeter of fences topped with razor wire. To the company that runs the deep-bore drill inside the structure, it offers a potential gateway to lower natural gas prices in energy-hungry Britain. But to Chlouk, it's a death knell for England's picture-postcard countryside.
"This is the selling of Great Britain," Chlouk said, peering out from behind a pair of glasses and a mop of brown dreadlocks. "I don't want my beautiful country destroyed. I'd hate for it to be like some places in America that look like alien landing zones."
Chlouk is one of a band of dedicated activists determined to keep Britain free of what they see as a plague that has blighted parts of the United States and other countries. Their enemies are the corporations eager to start digging deep into the earth to suck up trapped gas through hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits, or fracking.
A few nations and some American states and cities have put a hold on the practice because of its possible deleterious effects on the environment, such as contamination of groundwater.
But nowhere does public opposition seem as tenacious and as vocal as in Britain, where the fracking industry, heartily backed by the Conservative-led government, is still in an embryonic stage. Companies are lining up for permits to drill exploratory wells, prospecting for rich and accessible seams of gas-laden shale across the country.
The deep-seated hostility is rooted in peculiarly British characteristics and experiences. One is the near-religious reverence among many Brits for the countryside, which makes them especially zealous in driving away any threats to their "green and pleasant land" of hills and sheep and hedgerows, whose beauty has inspired poets and soldiers at war.
Then there were the literally jarring events of the spring of 2011, when two small earthquakes struck near the seaside town of Blackpool in northwestern England. The larger registered a mere 2.3 in magnitude, but the tremors were big news on this seismically docile island — and even more so after government-appointed independent experts concluded that they had been caused by a new fracking operation in the area.
Now environmental groups are out to create a shake-up of their own, to make fracking publicly unwelcome and politically nonviable. Here in Salford, in northern England just outside the city of Manchester and nearly 175 miles from London, Chlouk and his fellow activists have been living in a camp set up on the edge of a muddy field since November, braving violent storms and bone-chilling temperatures in their campaign to heckle and harass the company that owns the derrick, IGas Energy, into abandoning its test site.
The pop-up protest community is a hodgepodge of colorful tents, ribbons tied to branches and hand-painted signs like the one proclaiming: "Welcome to the desolate North. Now frack off." A communal kitchen is stocked with canned goods and (this being Britain) plenty of tea. About 20 core activists are constantly on-site, with others coming and going as time, jobs and families allow.
On a recent afternoon, two sympathetic local herbalists stopped by the camp to diagnose ailments and dispense tonics. Guitar-strumming young men and a general abundance of facial hair gave the encampment the air of an indie music festival.
But the anger is real over what the protesters — they prefer the word "protectors" — perceive as rapacious capitalism on the part of companies such as IGas.
"Their sole motive is to make profit. They're not here to provide a service or to give cheap gas," said Tim Williams, one of the few camp dwellers clearly older than 30. "We don't want the countryside to be industrialized.... Without the land, what do we have?"
Georgina Gilbert, a spokeswoman for London-based IGas, said the company is "committed to developing, producing and delivering energy to Britain, in a safe and environmentally responsible way." She said shale gas could boost the economy by creating jobs and make the nation less dependent on gas imported from Russia and Qatar.
A cry of "Lorry!" goes up whenever one of the protesters spots a convoy of delivery trucks, and the activists scramble to block the road to the test site, which is barely wide enough for two small cars. Police are invariably on hand; many of the demonstrators have been arrested at least once, including Chlouk and Williams.
"We recognize the right to peaceful protest. Our priority is to ensure that there is minimal disruption to the local residents and businesses," Gilbert said.
The protesters' tactic of shuffling slowly in front of the convoys can turn what ought to be a one-minute drive into a crawl lasting 20 minutes to two hours. "It does set us back slightly," Gilbert said, adding, "Our operations are going ahead as planned."
She noted that, at this point, the company is trying only to sample the geology to determine what lies beneath the surface; no fracking, which entails blasting apart rock with chemically treated water to release the gas, has begun. Shifting from one to the other would require IGas to apply for more permits on the privately owned land.
But environmental groups have no doubt that, after any promising discovery, approval would be a shoo-in from the government, which has declared Britain open for business. Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly extolled the industry, practically hailing as a miracle the extensive discoveries of shale gas and large-scale fracking underway in the United States, where natural gas prices are much lower than in Europe.
The British Geological Survey estimates there could be about 1.3 trillion cubic feet of shale gas beneath central and northern England, though not all of it may be extractable. Cameron says fracking could bring 74,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment to Britain.
"I want us to get on board with this change that is doing so much good and bringing so much benefit to North America," he said recently. "I want us to benefit from it here as well."
Critics say the environmental risks posed by toxic runoff and potential accidents are simply too great. They call for more investment in renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels instead of continued reliance on fossil fuels.
The anti-fracking movement scored something of a victory last month when executives of Cuadrilla Resources, the firm whose work was implicated in the two earthquakes by a study commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, decided that a controversial site in Balcombe, in southern England, was not suitable for fracking.
There, too, hundreds of protesters had pitched a tent camp and occupied it for weeks, and dozens of people were arrested during demonstrations. Policing the site — or over-policing, critics say — for two months cost taxpayers an extra $6.7 million.
Some of those demonstrators have now taken up the battle here in Salford, leading some detractors to paint the encampment as packed with opportunistic out-of-towners who don't represent local opinion.
Graham Stringer, a member of Parliament from the Manchester area, said recently that he admired the protesters' energy but that he had "nothing but contempt" for their arguments against exploiting Britain's shale gas reserves.
Activists say they enjoy the backing of many residents who drop by with encouraging words, food or firewood.
On the same day that the two herbalists offered their services, local union worker Pauline Nazir and a colleague stopped by to give protesters another morale (and sugar) boost by donating a huge bag of chocolate cookies.
Nazir worries that fracking could result in a tainted water supply.
"We don't need that in our country," she said. "These people are fighting for our futures and our kids' futures."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times