The UK shale industry is in deep trouble, even before a well is drilled. According to the latest Government survey, public support for fracking has reached a record low. Only 16 per cent of the population now support fracking.
Cuadrilla, the company trying to frack in Lancashire, has just suffered the public humiliation of a month of protests outside its Lancashire drill site. As one activist recently put it: ‘Lancashire is in open revolt against Cuadrilla.’
This revolt includes three local councillors, who appeared in court this week, along with six others. With such staunch opposition, the industry’s response is growing more repressive.
‘Warning to Persons Unknown’ - so begins the draconian injunction issued by INEOS against anti-fracking activists, months before the company has even started drilling for shale. If you [...] ‘disobey this order you will be held to be in contempt of court and may be imprisoned, fined or have your assets seized.’
Anyone who is deemed to undertake ‘harassment’, ‘intimidation’ or ‘annoyance’ is at risk. But so too is ‘obstructing the free passage along a highway; including but not limited to slow walking and attaching themselves to any vehicles or other objects along the public highway.’
Impeding, obstructing and interfering INEOS and its contractors in any way is also considered unlawful.
The concept that ‘slow walking’ could be an offence would certainly undermine the peaceful right to protest.
Ironically, slow walking has been ruled lawful by district judges in trials of protestors arrested previously at Balcombe in West Sussex and Brockham in Surrey.
INEOS claims it is the ‘most far reaching injunction of its kind’ secured by the shale industry in the UK. Most importantly, it has been issued even before planning permission to start drilling is given.
Tom Pickering, from INEOS argues: ‘We have a duty to do all we can to ensure the safety of everyone on and around our sites, including the protesters. Our people and suppliers have the right to come to work free from harassment and intimidation.’
Activists on Twitter were quick to label it as ‘undemocratic'.
And the Labour MP for Weaver Vale, Mike Amesbury issued a statement which said: ‘If INEOS think that today’s judgement has put an end to protests and opposition, they are very much mistaken. We will continue to fight any attempts to introduce fracking’.
Mike Schwarz is a lawyer from Bindmans who has won the private practice solicitor of the year award for defending environmental activists and the legitimacy of civil disobedience, among other issues. According to Schwarz:
‘When companies go to the courts, without notifying anyone else, and persuade a judge to give wide ranging and vague injunctions, they run a real risk of appearing oppressive, cowardly and only concerned about their own short term financial and legal interests.’
‘It's all too easy for companies seeking to extract the land's resources at the expense of others' rights to protest and everyone's need for a clean and sustainable environment to come a cropper when their strategy is eventually exposed.’
Indeed, the blanket injunction - the most draconian since one issued for Huntington Life Sciences in the 1990s against animal rights activists - could be construed as a ‘SLAPP’, a ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation’.
As I wrote in the 1990s in the book, Green Backlash: ‘Just as violence is designed to chill people into silence through physical intimidation, so SLAPPs are meant to chill people through legal intimidation.’
It is in effect ‘suing into silence’, according to the two professors from the University of Colorado who coined the term.
NRDC attorney Al Meyerhoff argued that the time: ‘It is part and parcel of the overall counter-attack by the polluter industry against the environmental community.’ SLAPPs were used in the UK against anti-road activists and now it seems they will be used against anti-fracking activists too.
But that is not the only questionable activity INEOS is doing to promote shale. A company working on behalf of INEOS stands accused of ‘aggressive cold calling’ in its attempts to push fracking in Derbyshire, where the chemical giant is currently looking for shale gas sites.
This is just one of numerous complaints and issues that Derbyshire County Council (DCC) is dealing with concerning exploration by INEOS in the region. It has also emerged that the council has insufficient finances and knowledge to adequately check INEOS’ fracking plans.
Internal Derbyshire council documents obtained by Spinwatch via Freedom of Information laws reveal how the council first raised its concerns last year in ‘partnership meetings’ with the chemical giant about the ‘aggressive cold calling taking place from agency staff working on behalf of INEOS’.
The calls were ‘in relation to seeking agreement from residents for monitoring stations’, which INEOS needs in place to gather seismic data to work out whether shale gas is viable. It led one official to write that ‘if residents are being hassled and getting fed up with it, it won’t be in the longer term interests of INEOS’.
The internal documents also note the potential reason for this aggressive behaviour: INEOS was ‘having difficulty getting the final agreement on land access for the full programme of sites for survey and monitoring points for seismic work’.
The documents reveal that when the council challenged INEOS over this behaviour at the end of 2016, an INEOS representative said ‘she would take it back to the company’.
Council documents from earlier this year also reveal other serious issues raised about INEOS’s proposed seismic testing activity, especially over compensation and safety.
The documents show the council is struggling with insufficient resources and knowledge of the local geology: ‘DCC consider they require an independent Geologist to advise on the more complex sites – there is no available funding to cover this’.
Regarding compensation for any tenants on council land, Derbyshire council noted that the proposed fees ‘will not meet the actual costs’ of the resources required. ‘[The] Tenant may require their own agent and legal advice independent of DCC’s in-house agent. Currently there is no compensation mechanism to support this.
Given Nottingham’s long mining history, Derbyshire officials are also worried about the ‘ground stability’ in relation to old coal mine workings that are leaking methane gas. Concerns have been ‘raised over possible instability of some sites’ that ‘were previously mining sites and are now filled land and / or contain mine shafts below the ground’. This section finishes by asking ‘Does the Coal Authority need to be consulted?’
When asked about this, a spokesperson for the Coal Authority said, although it ‘would not normally be consulted on any proposals relating to this’, any ‘proposal to work, enter or disturb our property would require our permission’.
Another problem raised was the impact of seismic testing on ‘gassing’. The council stated that: ‘some sites are currently emitting gas which is being managed. There is concern that this could be disrupted through seismic survey process and could affect nearly residential sites’.
One such site is INEOS’ proposed fracking site at Langwith, where officials noted: ‘close by is a spur line to the disused railway that is currently producing gas that is being managed and collected. There are concerns that this could be disturbed if fracking takes place’.
Derbyshire Council anticipates major issues with local residents about seismic activity if shale exploration takes place in public parks, near libraries, community centres, or where many of the sites were, ‘mainly schools’.
Concerning one such school, Eckington near Sheffield, officials noted in one of the documents: ‘There appear to be some survey points on the school site. Can these be moved? Governors of the school will need to be consulted with. Access will be a major issue if it anticipated that this be over the school site’.
Another council site under threat is Poulter Country Park, a local wildlife park where Bolsover district council also leases a children’s playground, and which has just had £400,000 invested in new trails and public art. It could face serious ‘disruption and need for excessive restoration following survey activity’. Officials warned that ‘there is a very strong community support for the park and any impact will result in significant negative publicity’.
In response to our questions about the cold calling, INEOS stated: ‘INEOS Shale is committed to positive relations with stakeholders and communities and will continue to work with land owners and the public to progress geological surveys and ultimately the extraction of natural gas in a responsible fashion.’