Campaigners from across south east England have confirmed they will be challenging attempts by an oil company to secure an injunction at the High Court on Monday against anti-drilling protests.
They said the proposed injunction would “severely curtail” their human rights.
UK Oil and Gas is seeking a wide-ranging order that would prohibit campaigners from using lawful means where the main intention was to damage the company’s economic interests.
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”. More details
Lorraine Inglis, a spokesperson for the campaign organisation, Weald Action Group, said:
“This is an attack on our human rights and freedom of expression.
“It would have a chilling effect on lawful protest and campaigning right across the South East.
“UKOG have admitted that ‘this kind of oil deposit very much depends on being able to drill your wells almost back to back’ – they have admitted that their plan is to industrialise our landscape. Campaign groups must remain free to raise awareness of this threat.
“Criminal law already exists to deal with unlawful activities. An oil company should not be permitted to use their wealth in defining what is legal and what is not in terms of peaceful protest, whether it be ‘cake at the gate’ or lobbying contractors. This injunction must be fiercely resisted.”
The challenge is being brought on behalf of campaigners and will be represented by civil rights lawyer Michael Oswald and his team at Bhatt Murphy solicitors.
UKOG’s draft order covers oil exploration sites at Horse Hill in Surrey and Broadford Bridge and Markwells Wood in West Sussex. It also covers UKOG’s offices in Guildford.
UKOG is the fourth oil and gas company to seek an injunction against protests. Cuadrilla, Europa and INEOS have each been granted orders, which have been increasingly wide-ranging. People who breach the terms of the injunction could be imprisoned, fined or have assets seized.
“Outrageous move by firm with no social licence”
Keith Taylor, Green Party MEP for south east England, said he wholeheartedly supported the campaigners:
“There is nobody who cares about the health of British democracy and human rights who wouldn’t do the same. On my visits to drilling protests across the UK, I have met the warmest, most caring people one can imagine. The passion is genuine, the means relentlessly peaceful.”
“This bid 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.”
“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. It will set a truly frightening precedent if it isn’t rejected out of hand.”
“Strong support” from FoE
David Abrahams, Friends of the Earth lawyer said:
“We strongly support the stance taken by local people opposing UKOG’s attempt to use the law to stifle valid means of showing concerns about oil exploration.
“This proposed injunction is a serious attack on the rights of local people to protest and campaign against oil and gas operations. It is completely unacceptable for lawful activities such as taking photographs and gathering outside sites to be included within the scope of an injunction.”
Campaigners “astonished” at injunction
The campaign group, Markwells Wood Watch (MMW), said its members were “astonished” to discover UKOG had sought an order to deter them from opposing drilling for fossil fuels at Forestside, West Sussex.
One member, Dr Julian Neal, a resident of Forestside, said:
“My only interest in opposing UKOG’s past application to extract oil at its Markwells Wood site is to safeguard the purity of the water supply and the health of around 300,000 residents of Portsmouth. I categorically refute any claim that my actions are motivated by a wish to damage the economic interests of UKOG and I challenge UKOG to prove otherwise.
“It goes without saying that UKOG’s action in taking this outrageous and illogical step is to deny free members of the British public the democratic right to express their objections to the actions of a corporate body.”
Another resident, David Martin, said:
“This legal action by UKOG comes from a self-professed community-conscious company. It aims to undermine the guarded principle of democracy which underpins the fabric of the UK, and seeks to gag local people from expressing their concerns over the impact of their environmentally unacceptable activities.
“Astonishingly, UKOG seek to impose the injunction on the Markwells Wood site where they have no current planning approval, it having lapsed in September 2016, over eighteen months ago. How’s that for community conscious?
“UKOG should be ashamed of themselves and should reconsider their action as they use our judicial system in an attempt to undermine and damage the democratic principles of our society. They would do well to consider whether they have social license for their activities before embarking on a gagging policy.”
Michael Harbour, also of MWW, said:
“Intention is an important principle in English law. The predominant intention of those of us who are opposing UKOG’s activities is not to injure their “economic interest”. This is not our concern. Our objective is to safeguard the environment and public health against the detrimental impacts of oil exploration and extraction. “
“UKOG has consistently over-hyped the resource at Markwells Wood and significantly downplayed the risks involved with acidising in our unique and vulnerable water catchment. It comes as no surprise that they would grossly exaggerate the threat of engaged residents in our rural hamlet. Everybody has a right to peaceful protest and no restrictions should be placed on this. We look forward to the restoration of the site and are delighted that the SDNP will be serving UKOG with an enforcement notice imminently.”
UKOG’s application to exploit their site at Markwells Wood expired 17 months ago.
Markwells Wood Watch said it had been informed by the South Downs National Park Authority Planning Officer that an Enforcement Notice requiring UKOG to restore the site to its original status as natural woodland is imminent.
“Impact on our democracy would be devastating”
Sylvia May, educational lead for community outreach for Frack Free Isle of Wight, said:.
“If this injunction by UKOG is embraced by the judiciary and upheld by law then the social impact within our democracy could be devastating.
“I am witnessing the progressive deconstruction of local communities’ democratic rights to object, for sound and responsible reasons to a governmental directive and then unable to peacefully protest to prevent real harm occurring on their own land, in their own county and across our country. So I now find myself, unwillingly, at the age of 68, and as a last resort having to possibly put myself in harm’s way to actively and peacefully protect my community, environment and country against those who would willingly and without consideration degrade it for profit. Simply because the powers-that-be and the industry they serve will not listen to the fact that they have no social licence to act.
“The history of the development of society is full of turbulence, courage, lessons learned and change, but the finite resources we have in this world, which enable future generations to live as civilised custodians, must be protected.
“This is the time for all of us to uphold our right to adapt within our lifetimes, to have the courage and imagination to see a future that is environmentally and humanly better than the present, and for governments and industries to leave a positive historical footprint that will be applauded and not derided in the future.”
- The case is due to be heard at the High Court at 10.30am on Monday 19 March 2018, at the Rolls Building, Fetter Lane, London EC4A 1NL
Updated 16/3/2018 with quote from Friends of the Earth