Last night I went to a public meeting at Shepherdswell Parish Hall to discuss a planning application for exploratory drilling for shale and coal bed methane gas just outside the village. I was amazed how many people were there. By my estimation about 200. It was standing room only and the back doors had to be opened to let in fresh air and provide more standing room. The meeting was organised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England - a big thank you to CPRE for doing something which KCC and the Environment Agency should have done weeks ago!
CPRE Hydrologist, Graham Warren, explained how exploring for, or extracting, gas from the former East Kent coalfield area was fraught with risk, especially the danger of polluting the East Kent chalk aquifer which provides water for tens-of-thousands of homes in Kent. He talked about the danger of atmospheric pollution from the drilling operation and the problems associated with disposing of hundreds of thousands of gallons of polluted water which will be brought to the surface by drilling. He then explained that the gas bearing seams are located in an area of geological faults caused by seismic activity. He said it was not a clever idea to drill thousands of metres below the ground in such an area as it might well lead to fresh seismic events.
I must say, that whenever I have previously been to complex scientific or technical presentations I, and others in the audience, have nodded off, begun to doodle on our notepads, started to daydream, raised eyebrows and indicated boredom to our neighbours or all of the above. But not last night! Mr Graham Warren transfixed all 200 souls in that room. He was heard in riveted silence and I am sure that more once I heard collective intakes of breath when he described some of the more awful consequences that might arise from the drilling.
So powerful was Mr Graham Warren's contribution that local Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, did a rapid U-Turn on his position on unconventional gas exploration and extraction. less than a week ago in an interview on BBC Radio Kent Elphicke was extolling the virtues of fracking and accusing CPRE as being muddled in their approach to unconventional gas extraction. But last night, after listening to Mr Warren he told the meeting that he was now totally opposed to uncovential gas extraction on his patch.
But perhaps it was not entirely Mr Warren's powers of persuasion that brought about this U-Turn, but rather the result of Mr Elphicke asking for a show of hands for and against drilling in East Kent. When at least 95% of the audience raised their hands against drilling Mr Elphicke's fence sitting suddenly stopped. After all 2015 is not long way off!
But seriously, last night was one of the finest examples I had seen, in a long time, of a community getting its act together and influencing the decision makers. There is now a group in Shepherdswell campaigning to oppose the planning applications and last night membership of that group exploded as people queued up to give their contact details to the organisers. I hope that the people of Shepherdswell will inspire residents of nearby Guston and Tilmanstone who face similar planning applications to begin to organise themselves as well. After seeing for myself a community in action I am convinced that drilling in East Kent will be defeated.