Six women from Sussex and Surrey are going to court tomorrow to challenge an injunction seeking to outlaw protests against oil drilling near their homes.
The challengers, who include the actor Sue Jameson, will argue at the High Court in London that the injunction interferes with their human rights to freedom of expression and has a chilling effect on campaigning.
The oil company, UKOG, which applied for the injunction, has denied it wants to prevent anyone exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression or peaceful protest.
It has described the injunction as a standard application. At an earlier hearing, UKOG’s barrister, Tim Polli, said
“It is difficult to see what they [the challengers] have to object to.”
The original injunction order applied to exploration sites at Broadford Bridge and Markwells Wood in West Sussex and Horse Hill in Surrey, as well as UKOG offices in Guildford. Since then the company has removed Markwells Wood from the order.
If approved, the order would prevent activities that breached the criminal law and some that did not. It would establish exclusion zones outside the sites where campaign activity would be restricted. It would also prohibit people taking photographs of vehicles belonging to UKOG suppliers.
People who breached the injunction could be found in contempt of court and be fined, imprisoned or have their assets seized.
DrillOrDrop asked the six women why they had decided to challenge the injunction.
Where do you live?: Dorking
Which is the nearest UKOG site to your home? Leith Hill. Horse Hill is 8 miles
Why are you taking part in the challenge? I am concerned that the injunction, if granted, would be likely to have a serious deterrent effect on local people being able to continue campaigning in opposition to UKOG’s activities. From reading the injunction, it is very difficult to understand what is covered by the description of “persons unknown” and how previously legal acts could in the future be considered “illegal” and in what conditions this would come into effect, and what the consequences would be.
In effect, this is a silencing order on the general public who show genuine concern for the environment and the future implications on their community.
Occupation: Green campaigner
Where do you live? Dorking, Surrey
Which is the nearest UKOG site to your home? Leith Hill where UKOG has a 40% stake, then Horse Hill
Why are you taking part in the challenge? The right to peaceful protest must be defended. UKOG wants to silence protest against onshore oil and gas which threatens our climate, our water and our countryside. Local communities must be able to stand up for what they believe and use lawful means to express their views. I’m not prepared to stand by and let this draconian injunction come into effect without putting up a fight.
Why do you oppose oil exploration in the Weald? There are big reasons – like climate change which mean we must keep fossil fuels in the ground and move quickly towards an energy future based on low carbon. There are public health reasons like the risk to our drinking water from acidisation which will be used to extract the tight oil at commercial levels. And I’m passionate about our countryside and what it means to people – peace, beauty and freedom from industrial activity. Onshore oil and gas threatens all of that.
What do you think will happen if UKOG’s injunction is allowed? People will keep on campaigning peacefully and lawfully against onshore oil and gas. The industry is already in trouble with falling share prices and bail outs. This isn’t an industry with a sustainable future in any sense of the word. It seems very unlikely that they will achieve their aim of “back to back wells across the Weald” with or without injunctions to help them. They are just wasting their money on unnecessary legal costs.
Where do you live? Dorking
Which is the nearest UKOG site to your home? Leith Hill (called Holmwood by UKOG)
Why are you taking part in the challenge? I passionately believe people should have freedom to protest, especially if they are concerned about what is happening in their local communities. If people are protesting we need a discussion, not a corporate steamroller. We’re not living in North Korea. UKOG have raised this injunction to try to ensure that no protest gets in the way of their ‘economic interests’ , irrespective of the environmental and ecological interests of the residents in the communities where they’re drilling
Why do you oppose oil exploration in the Weald? I really don’t think it’s necessary anywhere. Here’s an article from Jeff Zie (pdf) explaining why
What do you think will happen if UKOG’s injunction is allowed? An immediate appeal will be necessary if we don’t want corporate greed to walk all over democracy.
Where do you live? I live in the Billingshurst area.
Which is the nearest UKOG site to your home? Broadford Bridge is the nearest site – but my concern is with the whole of the Weald, the UK and, indeed, our planet.
Why are you taking part in the challenge? I am representing members of KKWG (Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green), KBFF (Keep Billingsdhurst Frack Free), the Weald Action Group and many local residents. We could find that our voice is taken away, and our freedom to share our thoughts and concerns is lost. It’s a matter of democratic human rights. If this injunction is imposed, these rights could be seriously curtailed and/or removed under threat of arrest.
Occupation: Ann Stewart. Retired Deputy Headteacher.
Where do you live? About a mile from the Markwells Wood site, near Rowlands Castle.
Which is the nearest UKOG site to your home? Markwells Wood
Why are you taking part in the challenge?
Markwells Wood was part of the original injunction application. We were amazed and outraged. The original injunction included banning legal activities if they affected the oil company’s economic interests. Our campaign was to stop them drilling at Markwells Wood, so of course it would affect their economic interests. However, our intention was to stop the industrialisation of this particularly peaceful part of the South Downs National Park and to protect our local amenities, especially our aquifer, which is an important source for Portsmouth Water. This injunction would, in effect, have made any campaigning illegal. It looked as if the company was trying to use the courts to change the law and severely restrict any rights to protect the countryside. The fact that the injunction was against “persons unknown” was also very disturbing, as this means everyone who is willing to object.
The evidence UKOG presented in their injunction application portrayed us as radical protesters. They used carefully chosen images of aggressive confrontations at sites, mainly fracking sites in the North of England. Although I sympathise with the brave activists willing to risk this kind of treatment, it contrasts with our pathetically genteel campaign at Markwells Wood. Our campaigning has consisted of lots of letters and emails, meetings in village halls, one very cheerful demonstration in front of Portsmouth Town Hall, a tea party and stall at a village fete. We also set up placards in the area with the messages “Protect out National Park” and “Protect our water”
After the first hearing UKOG revised much of the injunction, presumably because they could see how extreme their initial injunction was. They also took Markwells Wood off the injunction on the grounds that “operationally it has ceased to be of importance”. In fact, they had just received a Breach of Condition notice requiring them to clear the site within six months and to restore the woodland within a year. They had also told the court that they had all the access permissions they needed to get to the site. In that week, it emerged that this was not true, and that they had lost access about six months ago. Clearly it would be to their advantage if the issue of Markwells Wood quietly faded away.
Moreover, UKOG were still telling their shareholder in the annual report and their RNSs, and at their shareholders meeting that they were working on a new application and that they were in consultation with the relevant agencies. We had confirmation through FoI requests that they had not contacted either Portsmouth water, the Environment Agency or the SDNPA. So, on the principle that “it ain’t over till it’s over” I decided to remain one of the defendants. Although I think UKOGs claim that they will re-apply to drill at Markwells Wood is just posturing for the sake of their shareholders, any injunction would probably restrict us if we did have to campaign at some future date.
Why do you oppose oil exploration in the Weald?
My initial reason was simply on climate change grounds, and this is not just about the Weald, but oil exploration generally. We have used up all the easily available oil, and what is left is difficult to exploit. Markwells Wood has, what is described as, tight oil reserves. Put simply, it will take a lot of energy, and therefore a lot of greenhouse gas emissions to access the oil, and this will be before a drop of oil can be used. Moreover, it allows us to “carry on as usual” with our policy of using our carbon resources in a wasteful and profligate manner.
As I got involved in the campaign many more concerns became apparent. I became aware of the impact it would have on local biodiversity. One of the special features of this part of the National Park is the number of ancient woodlands and the network of trees and hedges that link them. This network is vital to the many vulnerable species of our increasingly threatened wildlife. In this area, this network is being increasingly broken up by housing developments and the associated infrastructure. In the area around Markwells Wood there are records of 12 of the 18 species of British bats, including two of the rarest British mammals, Bechsteins and Barbastelles bats. Both are highly dependent on the network of trees and hedges. Both have the highest levels of wildlife protection. There are also records of numerous RSPB red list species of birds as well as Schedule 1 protected bird species.
The planning objections made by both Portsmouth Water and the Environment Agency alerted me to the danger to the important aquifer under Markwells Wood. Our group commissioned a report from a hydrogeologist, which showed that the local geology is not been fully understood, and that there is evidence that it should be considered a Source Protection Zone 1. This report makes some serious challenges to the hydrogeological evidence submitted by UKOG in their planning application.
I also became aware of the problems associated with acidisation, the stimulation technique that UKOG intended to use at Markwells Wood. UKOG publicly stated that this was the same technique used by water companies. In fact, water companies use an “acid wash” to clear their wells, and use this in chalk, where the acid becomes neutralised. For obvious reasons the levels of these activities have to be very safe. There are other, more invasive acidisation techniques, including matrix acidisation and acid fracking. UKOG gave contradictory statements about which they intend to use. They failed to mention that their acidisation would take place in different rock strata, not chalk, and that they would release, and need to dispose of, some toxic salts and possibly some naturally occurring radioactive materials.
Other issues were the effect of industrial traffic on our very rural roads and the possible health consequences of the acidisation for people living in the area.
What do you think will happen if UKOG’s injunction is allowed?
Like many people just the thought of this injunction made me very nervous. I did not know what the implications are for me. Surely, if an action is illegal, it is illegal. Why is some extra measure needed? Does this mean I can be prosecuted for actions that I have always assumed are perfectly legal? I think this would be the case for many people. Many people are already nervous about coming forward and making a public stand for the things they hold dear. An injunction, the full implications of which they are likely not to understand, are likely to deter them further. It curtails their right to object partly because of the conditions in the injunction, but also because of the level of uncertainty created by the mere fact that an injunction exists.
The other consequence is that it would impact on those issues that brought me to the campaign in the first place. It would make it easier for UKOG to pursue their business and consequently increase climate change emissions. It would hammer yet another nail in the coffin of local biodiversity and it would endanger our aquifer and our health.
Where do you live? Leith Hill
Which is the nearest UKOG site to your home? UKOG have a large share interest in the development at Bury Hill Wood, Leith Hill, Dorking.
Why are you taking part in the challenge? I am doing what I can to protect the ancient and sacred Coldharbour Lane and woodlands of Leith Hill, an AONB and SSSI.
Why do you oppose oil exploration in the Weald? I believe in the protection and promotion of both environmental and public health.
What do you think will happen if UKOG’s injunction is allowed? I trust that the UK justice system will protect and preserve our human rights and that this case will inspire even more people to join our cause.
DrillOrDrop will be reporting on the case at the High Court