Local protestors telling Total to ‘Frack Off!’

Deep beneath the North Jutland landscape, natural gas is trapped within shale rock. French energy company Total has a licence to extract it, but locals have spent almost three years trying to shut them down, concerned that their groundwater will be polluted in the process. Inside the protest camp, we meet some of the locals dedicated to keeping the gas in the ground and their groundwater clean

You can take my picture if you want but I hope you save some room for photos of the others,” Aage Olsen tells me. He is the longest-standing resident of Total Protest camp, but is quick to emphasize that the movement is collective. He takes pride in seeing to the camp’s daily practicalities: answering the camp phone, preparing coffee for post-protest ‘hygge’, and being on-call for visitors like me.

“We give what we can. Everything you see here?” he says gesturing to the camping wagons, kitchen, cosy community meeting tent. “They are all donated by locals. There are some ladies in their seventies who are really dedicated. They can’t stay here overnight but they see to it that we’re looked after.”

As if on cue, Olsen motions to a car pulling into the camp’s gravel car park. Katrine Winther jumps out with a loaf of homemade walnut bread, and quickly launches into a stream of observations about fracking and the community.

“Don’t be fooled: she might be a sweet 72-year-old lady but she’s aggressive for the cause,” Olsen warns when she pulls away.

In my three days at Total Protest camp I saw locals pull up with toilet paper, lawn chairs, firewood and vegetables. Few knew each other before fracking came to Vendsyssel, but many are now good friends. The sense of jovial solidarity permeating the camp is a refreshing contrast to the seriousness of their mission: to prevent the French energy corporation Total from fracking in their backyard.

Total Protest Camp and Greenpeace collaborated during the blockades of drilling materials. Four Greenpeace activists scaled the drilling tower while another four attached themselves to the facility's gates, as seen here. Photo: Greenpeace

Total Protest Camp and Greenpeace collaborated during the blockades of drilling materials. Four Greenpeace activists scaled the drilling tower while another four attached themselves to the facility’s gates, as seen here. Photo: Greenpeace

Pollutants, carcinogens and earthquakes
Fracking is a process that releases gas trapped in underground shale rock. This is achieved by first drilling, then forcing down a high-pressure mix of water, air and chemicals in to the rock, up to three kilometres below the surface. This fractures the rock, which releases the gas that is collected when it rises to the surface. The gas can end up mixing with the water table, however, creating tap water so saturated in methane it can be set alight.

Between 10 and 30 million litres of water are used in each fracking operation, which risks depleting the water available for other uses such as drinking and agriculture. The water table also risks being polluted by the chemicals that are added to aid the fracking process.

The chemicals that Total uses are a trade secret, but a 2011 article in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment listed 632 chemicals that have so far been identified in the drilling, fracking, processing and delivery of natural gas in the US. According to the paper, three quarters of the chemicals could affect our sensory organs, while around half are known to impact the brain and nervous system. A quarter are known or suspected carcinogens.

Long-suspected of causing earthquakes, the US Geological Survey government recently admitted that fracking was in fact responsible for the rise in quakes in eight separate states over seven years.

The illuminated drilling tower

The illuminated drilling tower

Ritual bonding
The camp is the physical manifestation of local opposition, and can be traced back more than three years to when concerned locals started gathering to discuss the possibility of Total drilling in Frederikshavn or Bronderslev Kommune. Early last summer, Vendsyssel locals gradually transformed a plot of land around the corner from Total’s test drilling site into a community space.

Anne-Marie and Karsten Kristiansen own the land and are active in the movement. During times of peak activity there are around 40 protesters sharing large tents on the grounds, while during the harsh winter only a few hardened residents held down the fort.

When the camp sprang up, some locals worried that the group was a collection of hippies trying to build a new Christiania – an autonomous community in Copenhagen known for housing gangs and a thriving drug trade. While the protesters are often mischaracterised as lazy and unemployed, they are actually diverse group – some work, some receive benefits and some are retired. A number are farmers, who live within view of the drilling site.

And, as awareness about fracking spreads, support for the movement is growing.

I arrive just an hour before the climax of the camp’s daily ritual: the daily singing protest. “Grab a sign!” a friendly face calls out, assuming I’m just there to protest. I gamely brandish a “Frederikshavns Kommune: black or green?” sign, though it proves difficult while also trying to operate a camera.

Later in the afternoon, we don neon vests emblazoned with ‘Total Protest’ and walk toward the drilling site. Soon the drill tower looms over the otherwise typical North Jutland landscape. Without hesitation, the protestors start to fasten their banners to the gate and affix their “Water is Life” signs into a mound of soil.

We sing satirical songs inspired by Danish classics, while Olsen’s dog, Nikki, directs several sharp barks at the drilling tower at the end of each song. Following the protest we drink coffee, socialise and eat Katrine’s bread.

The camp’s sociability keeps the opposition burning, for sustained protest requires a high level of commitment. When protestors blockaded trucks transporting materials to the drilling site for 10 days during the Easter holidays, the local network was already in place. Lookouts alerted the protestors of incoming supply trucks. A committed core of protestors used a text message list to keep everyone informed and ready to drop everything to set a blockade.

This form of direct protest was new to many of the locals. 72-year-old Inge *** laughed conspiratorially, “I never thought I would be a part of something like this!”

More than 30 environmental protestors from Copenhagen, Århus, and Aalborg contributed to the human blockades, which were eventually dismantled by the police. Experienced in civil disobedience, the protestors handed down their knowledge to the locals, who remain the core of the protest movement.

The Murmur's Alice Minor getting to know one of Dybvad's most dedicated protestors, Aage Olsen's dog Nikki.

The Murmur’s Alice Minor getting to know one of Dybvad’s most dedicated protestors, Aage Olsen’s dog Nikki.

Long road ahead
A sense of alienation from Copenhagen politicians is evident at the camp. Protestors are certain that Total made a calculated decision to start drilling in their backyard before the other licensed region, the wealthy ‘whisky belt’ north of Copenhagen.

It simply wouldn’t do to drill in North Zealand, Mette Tolstrup commented wryly over a post-protest coffee. She can’t imagine Total getting far drilling the backyard of Denmark’s elite. With the Danish state set to only take around 20 percent of the proceeds from the gas, some of the protestors said they felt like guinea pigs sold cheaply to a foreign corporation.

While I was at the camp, minister of climate, energy and building Rasmus Helveg Petersen stated that no further fracking licenses would be granted in Denmark. The news was met with tepid approval in the camp. 12 percent of Danish land was already licensed for fracking in 2010. Total Protest activists wondered aloud – if the state has decided fracking isn’t safe elsewhere in Denmark, why is it still okay in Vendsyssel?

On my last morning in camp, I drink a coffee with Aage Olsen and the camp phone rings. Energy Watch Europe wants a comment on the news that the Danish state officially permitted Total to go through with test drilling. I sit in tense anticipation. When he hangs up Olsen says, completely unperturbed, “Well we knew it would happen – just a matter of what day.”

Noting my confusion, Olsen says slyly, “You know that saying that politics is too important to be left to politicians? Turns out it’s true.”

The blockades might have delayed Total, but drilling is set to begin at the start of May. This is just the first round, and Total will need to apply for a new permit to continue into the next phase. Total Protest Camp is in it for the long haul – a community of resistance that’s willing to hold out for a decade if necessary. M

Some interviewees did not want to provide their full names.


By Alice Minor

Hailing from Seattle, Alice is working to understand Danish society through the lens of intersectional feminism.

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