A climate campaigner who protested against a new jet fuel pipeline to Heathrow airport has been jailed for contempt of court.
At a High Court hearing in London today, Mr Justice Ritchie sentenced Scott Breen (48), also known as Digger, to 112 days in prison and fined him £1,500.
Mr Breen, who has also protested against onshore oil and gas projects, had occupied land used by contractors on the Southampton to London Pipeline Project (SLPP) in August and early September 2022.
He dug an 8ft vertical shaft on the site near Chertsey in Surrey and later built a structure from wooden pallets on top of it.
The 105km pipeline will carry aviation fuel from Boorley Green in Hampshire to a storage terminal in Hounslow, near the airport. It is designed to replace an original pipeline built in the 1970s.
In court today, Mr Breen apologised for breaching the terms of an injunction granted to Esso Petroleum Company Limited, which is building the 105km pipeline. He gave an undertaking to the court that he would not take part in any future incursion onto SLPP land.
But Mr Justice Ritchie described Mr Breen as “arrogant and dismissive” and said he had “flouted continuously” the injunction order.
The judge ruled that Mr Breen had breached the court order in three ways: by failing to leave the shaft when instructed to in August, by building the pallet structure and by obstructing the SLPP by remaining on the site.
The campaigner had “sought to cause chaos by refusing to engage with the court process”, the judge said. He accused Mr Breen of submitting a witness statement, which he said, sought to “hoodwink the court”
The judge said he had sentenced Mr Breen to five days in prison for each of the 16 days he was in breach of the injunction. An extra 21 days were added for each of five aggravating factors. These included publishing social media posts about the protest, the witness statement and refusing to listen to verbal warnings.
The 185-day total had been reduced by 40 per cent, the judge said, because of mitigating factors. These included that Mr Breen had rehabilitated himself from drug addiction. “I am hugely impressed by your getting off drugs”, he said.
But the judge said these factors were not enough to suspend the sentence. There was also a danger that Mr Breen would breach the injunction again, he said.
A warrant had been issued for Mr Breen’s arrest last week (Friday 2 September 2022) and he had been ordered to appear in court yesterday (Monday 5 September 2022).
Mr Justice Ritchie said of Mr Breen:
“He refused to engage with the civil process. He refused to comply with the injunction. He refused to comply with the warrant for his arrest.”
The judge said the cost to Esso could be £10,000s or even £100,000s .
Tim Morshead QC for the company had asked the court for an immediate custodial sentence as a deterrent to future protesters. In written submissions, the company had asked for six months. He said:
“Anything less than that will be seen as a victory”.
He said Mr Breen had used social media as a propaganda tool and had boasted about his protest in the media.
It was “impossible to control” how material about the injunction, including today’s decision, would be used by campaigners, he said.
“My client fears that there will be a presentation of a trial – that Esso was defeated.”
In truth, he said, it will be the authority of the court that had been defeated.
Mr Morshead said there was an “unending sequence of people” like Mr Breen who were willing to take part in protests.
The courts were dealing with them in a highly customised and expensive way, he said. As a result, “my client is left with a far less effective remedy”.
The barrister said Mr Breen’s undertaking did not even go as far as the terms of the injunction.
He said the campaigner had deliberately put himself in perceived danger.
“[his actions were designed] to make it too risky for the landowner to take direct action.”
The protest delayed work on the pipeline, Mr Morshead said. Extracting Mr Breen would have put the lives of emergency services at risk, he added.
Asked what the cost of the protest had been to Esso, Mr Morshead said:
“We can’t say what the loss has been. There are difficulties and sensitivities so that I cannot put a number on it.”
He said it would be “substantial”.
Asked about the value of the pipeline project, Mr Morshead said this was not publicly known.
The pipeline project was “unusually large and has national strategic significance”, Mr Morshead said in written submissions. The works had been carefully programmed, he said.
Annabel Timan, for Mr Breen, said the contempt of court could be dealt with by a suspended sentence. She told the court:
“It is late in the day, but he fully accepts he was in breach of the injunction.
“He apologises for breaching the order and for the late acceptance of the breach.
“He does realise the very serious situation he now finds himself”.
Ms Timan said:
“Mr Breen’s motivation has always been to draw attention to climate change. There is incontrovertible evidence that we are in a climate crisis.”
“There has been much reference [at the hearing] to propaganda. Drawing attention to climate change is not propaganda.”
She said social media had played a part in advertising the protest. The court heard that Mr Breen had posted the front page of the injunction order on social media. But Ms Timan said there was no text with the screenshot.
Mr Breen’s breach of the injunction was “not an explicit encouragement for others to do the same”, she said.
Ms Timan said Mr Breen’s case was not the most serious category of contempt of court. There was no evidence that the shaft was deeper than 8ft, she said. There was no network of tunnels. The breach of the injunction, at 16 days, was not the longest. There was no danger to the public.
“It is accepted that Mr Breen complied very late and only when police officers came to the site. Once the police had left, he gathered his possessions and left the site. He was willing to end his direct action. He could have locked himself into the pit, forcing others to forcibly evict him. But he did not want to do that. He did attend court yesterday and he is grateful that the court did not remand him overnight in custody.”
On losses to Esso, Ms Timan accepted there had been some disruption. But she said:
“It was not clear how much delay was caused.
“It is not clear when the work was due to start.
“Your lordship cannot take a proper view that there was a substantial loss.”
Esso had not submitted an application for costs and the judge made no order.
Reporting on this court case was made possible by donations from DrillOrDrop readers