The exploration company, UK Oil and Gas, has applied for a wide-reaching injunction against anti-drilling protests at sites in West Sussex and Surrey.
Like several previous applications by onshore oil and gas companies, it is brought against “person’s unknown and seeks to prohibit specified actions, some of which are illegal.
But for the first time, it includes a clause to prevent opponents “combining by lawful means” with the main intention of hurting the company’s economic interests.
The injunction aims to cover oil exploration sites at Broadford Bridge and Markwells Wood in West Sussex and Horse Hill in Surrey. The order would also cover UKOG’s offices in Guildford.
UKOG has designated what it calls “exclusion zones” on sections of road outside the site entrances, where it aims to restrict campaign activity against oil and gas developments. It also defines various actions, including taking photographs of contractors, as “unlawful”.
The application accuses protesters of “a wanton disregard of private property” and of attempting to intimidate supply companies from withdrawing their services at oil and gas sites.
The company said in a statement:
“Recent incidents have compelled UKOG to take this serious legal action to protect itself, its supply chain and landlords from threats and unlawful conduct from activists, who are intent on preventing us from going about our lawful business.
“The injunction does not prevent anyone effectively exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.
“The Injunction provides the High Court’s protection from unlawful actions such as trespass on UKOG’s land, unlawful interference with access to UKOG land, obstruction of the highway (including by slow-walking, lock-ons and lorry surfing) and obstructing or interfering with those suppliers working for the Company.”
If the injunction were confirmed anyone who breached it could be imprisoned, fined or have their assets seized.
The policing monitoring group, Netpol, today accused UKOG of trying to stifle opposition and severely restrict the right to freedom of assembly. (See Reaction section for full statement)
A web link to electronic versions of the application have been distributed by social media to individuals and anti-fracking groups.
The application is due to be heard at the High Court on Monday 19 March.
UKOG is now the fourth oil and gas company to apply for an injunction against protesters. Cuadrilla, Europa and INEOS have each been granted orders, which have been increasingly wide-ranging.
The application comprises 42 documents and more than 50 videos. There are more than 900 pages of exhibits, which include online news reports, some repeated several times, along with social media posts, photographs, lease agreements, licences, consents and legal orders at other sites. The documents can be seen by using this Dropbox link
As well as UKOG, the claimants seeking the injunction comprise its subsidiary Kimmeridge Oil and Gas, and partner companies Magellan Petroleum (UK) Limited, Horse Hill Developments Ltd and UKOG (GB) Limited.
The order, if approved, would apply to “person’s unknown who are protestors against the exploration and/or extractor [sic] of mineral oil or relative hydrocarbon or natural gas by the claimant(s)” who are undertaking six different acts.
“Combining together using lawful means where the predominant intention is to injure the claimant’s economic interest”.
A spokesperson for UKOG said that acts which may be lawful are converted to unlawful behaviour if people act together with the predominant intention of injuring the company.
The draft order also seeks to outlaw:
- Entering the sites
- Obstructing the company and its contractors on the highway
- Preventing access to the sites
- Committing offences including obstructing the highway, criminal damage, interfering with a motor vehicle and compelling a person from abstaining from a legal action
If approved, the injunction would prevent a range of campaign techniques, including slow walking and lorry surfing.
Other prohibited activities, which are described in one document as “unlawful”, include photographing employees and contractors or publishing negative comments about suppliers with the intention of targeting them in a campaign.
Some of the actions referred to in the draft order are criminal offences. But some have been the subject of court cases where protesters have been acquitted, while others have not been included in previous injunctions.
On the exclusion zones, the draft documents are confusing. One seeks to prohibit protesters from:
“Demonstrating in furtherance of the campaign at the sites or in the vicinity of the sites”
Demonstrating is defined as:
“carrying out any activity as part of or in furtherance of the campaign or protest against the lawful use and/or development of the sites.”
Another document qualifies this by saying:
“save that no more than 6 protestors may at any one time demonstrate within the Exclusion Zone provided that no obstruction or other act occurs as prohibited in this order”.
No one was available to clarify this at UKOG or its solicitors, Hill Dickinson LLP.
A spokesperson for Broadford Bridge Action Group said:
‘”This attempted action by UKOG is an affront to democracy. Local people like us have a right to voice our genuine concerns about the potential impact of unconventional oil exploration on our communities and water supplies. Trying to use the High Court to silence debate and stop lawful activity is in no one’s interests and could fracture our society beyond repair.’
“This comes at a time when (buried under that announcement the other day about housing planning) the government instructed council planners to look favourably on oil and gas developments. Meanwhile a government inquiry closes on March 15th asking whether all planning for oil and gas should be taken away from local authorities and decided at the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol and ultimately then by central government.“The inquiry (from the Communities and Local Government Committee) also asks whether all permitting of oil and gas activity should be done by one central body. (Currently it is split between the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Oil and Gas Authority, as well as local councils for Planning permission.)“All these moves will make it easier and quicker for the oil and gas industry to get planning permission to drill wells across our landscape – because the geology they are now targeting needs a lot of wells to tap it commercially. This is the latest in a string of changes to law, regulation and planning guidance that facilitate the onward march of onshore oil and gas drilling.”
Kevin Blowe, of the policing monitoring network, Netpol, said:
“This latest interim injunction is another attempt by the onshore oil and gas industry to stifle opposition and severely restrict the right to freedom of assembly.
“The sweeping nature of the injunction is extraordinary. By seeking to prevent any interference with UKOG’s “economic interests” – a term that could mean almost anything – the company seems to suggest that the only “acceptable” protests are those that have no cost impact on its business and no effect on its share price.
“Anything else risks the potential threat of expensive legal action against local campaigners, even if they are “combining together using lawful means”, something that is a fair description of how every campaign group has ever operated.
“We have put campaigners in Surrey and Sussex in touch with experienced lawyers and are looking to provide support for initial legal advice through our Activists Legal Action Fund“.
Balcombe resident, Kathryn McWhirter, said:
“Local communities feel bullied and oppressed, by our government and by the oil and gas companies. We have a legal right to peaceful protest. We have a right to campaign against industrial activities that are to us clearly detrimental to the environment, to human health and to the climate. Our regulators, planners and councillors who issue permits for these oil sites seem too politically driven, too under-resourced or too afraid of being sued. Someone has to take a stand.“Communities do not want oil drilling, whether it involves fracking or acidising or not. We do not need more onshore gas, we certainly do not need more onshore oil. So much damage will be done. Acidising and/or fracking will require a very large number of wells across our landscapes.“Labour has pledged to ban fracking. Yet Conservative planning committees in the South East blindly follow their party’s line and condemn us to accept the oil industry into our villages and countryside. We are defending our health and our environment, our planet and generations to come. Protest is our human right.”
Keith Taylor, Green Party MEP for south east England:
“This is an absolutely outrageous move by a firm that has no social licence for its environmentally-destructive drilling operations and, instead, is seeking a draconian injunction to bludgeon local people’s right to peaceful and lawful protest. It is worth remembering that peaceful and legal protest is just that; peaceful and legal.
“In a free and democratic country, a company’s economic interests should never supplant citizens’ fundamental human rights. This injunction is not only practically unenforceable it is also chillingly anti-democratic. It presents an obvious and clear breach of the Human Rights Act.
“I offer my wholehearted support to those residents and campaigners now forced to muster the legal support necessary to ensure this challenge to our civil liberties is rejected out of hand. I would urge anybody who cares about the health of British democracy and human rights to do the same.”
“£100,000s spent on security”
In a witness statement, UKOG’s Executive Chairman, Stephen Sanderson, said the company had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on security at the sites.
He said the bill at Broadford Bridge from August 2016-November 2017 was £542,000. The estimated cost for security at the site for January 2018 was £64,000.
At Horse Hill, Mr Sanderson said security costs during drilling in 2014 were £450,000 and during flow testing in 2016 they were £122,000. The security budget for 2018 was £636,000, he said.
The Markwells Wood site, on the West Sussex-Hampshire border, has no planning permission in force and there is no reference to security costs at this site.
Mr Sanderson said:
“protesters do not discriminate between fracking companies and conventional oil & gas exploration companies”
Referring to a visit by opponents to UKOG’s Guildford offices in July 2017, Mr Sanderson added:
“This incident highlights the wanton disregard that some of these protesters have to private property rights, whether it is trespassing on our private operational land or trespassing on our office premises.”
“Targeting the supply chain”
In another witness statement, James Court, of UKOG’s consultant, Eclipse Security, said:
“Over the past 12 months, it has become a tactic of anti-fracking protesters to target the operators supply chain in an attempt to disrupt their businesses.”
Mr Court said his company had worked for Europa and INEOS Upstream and monitored protests across the country.
“It is clearly the object of the protesters to attempt to intimidate those companies (such as haulage companies, fencing companies and skip hire companies) into withdrawing from their supply operations.
“Unless stopped, this form of protest against suppliers and sub-contractors will continue.”
In their witness statements, Mr Sanderson and the company’s solicitor, Kevin Lee, both quoted a sentence from a six-page letter by the Lancashire Assistant Chief Constable, Terry Woods. This was written in September 2017 to Ken Cronin, Chief Executive of the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas.
Mr Woods said:
“Whilst I believe the majority of protestors are there to peacefully demonstrate there are others who resort to criminality and utilise a variety of tactics and methods which cause significant disruption to the community and operators.”
Mr Lee said:
“the scale of this problem cannot be underestimated. [sic]”
Updated 7/3/2018 with the addition of a statement from UKOG, small amendments to the headline and opening text and the addition of the point that some actions mentioned in the draft order have been the subject of court cases where protesters have been acquitted. Also updated to add quotes from Kathryn McWhirter and Keith Taylor MEP