Vicki Elcoate writes on behalf of the Surrey and Sussex Six, who are resisting a legal attempt to ban protests against fossil fuel drilling
I am writing this on behalf of six women in the South East of England who are defending the right to peaceful protest against a juggernaut that is sweeping across our land. Oil and gas companies are aggressively pursuing the fossil fuels buried beneath our countryside. Local communities are pitted against them as they seek to further their commercial interests. We want to protect our environment – clean water and air, countryside, tranquillity.
UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) applied for an injunction in March. This would, amongst other things, clamp down on peaceful protest, and mean heavy penalties including prison for anyone who breaches it. Worse, the injunction is against ‘persons unknown’ which would mean anyone and everyone. If we had stood back we would now have an interim injunction banning ‘lawful activities’ which conflicted with UKOG’s commercial interests.
We felt we had no choice. The potential for other companies to use this wide ranging and draconian step was enormous. So we put our names forward and became the Surrey and Sussex six!
Once UKOG realized the scale of the opposition they watered down the injunction by rewording the (clearly ridiculous) proposed ban on lawful activities. This originally aimed to prevent lawful ‘combining together… where the predominant intention is to injure the claimant’s economic interests’.
They now want to limit the ways we can protest – attempting to stop us taking actions like getting in touch with suppliers to the drilling sites and informing them of the risks fossil fuel companies pose to our environment.
I got involved in this campaign when permission was given for an exploratory oil drill along the tranquil and historic country lane near where I live, Coldharbour Lane. Europa Oil and Gas, the operator, in partnership with UKOG which owns a 40 per cent interest in the project, has been trying, since 2008, to obtain consent to drill on Leith Hill in the Surrey Hills – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Green Belt.
Europa plans to use this lane to move an oil rig and tonnes of aluminium trackway, and to remove waste including radioactive waste. The plan was given the green light by the national Planning Inspectorate – which takes planning decisions out of the hands of democratically elected local councillors – in 2015, after Surrey County Council had turned it down. There followed a heroic fight by the Leith Hill Action Group, now joined by A Voice for Leith Hill, which have raised thousands of pounds to cover the costs of various legal challenges. Only the traffic management plan and environmental permits remain to be granted now before drilling can begin.
A protection camp, with locals and other activists, popped up towards the end of 2016 and has been there ever since. Locals and protectors are now working together to oppose this plan which also threatens our historic trees and the water which feeds the aquifer for the towns of Dorking and Leatherhead.
As part of our campaign we’ve found ourselves doing all kinds of new things: speaking at planning committees; speaking to the press; cooking meals for 10 people at the camp; printing endless leaflets; running stalls; hosting band nights and art exhibitions; visiting schools to explain the dangers of taking fossil fuels out of the ground.
This isn’t just about our local area – it is about an industry hungry to make a quick buck from exploiting our natural resources at the expense of our climate. It was UKOG’s CEO Stephen Sanderson who said the aim was to build ‘back to back wells’ in an ‘industrial production’. Communities across the South East and those fighting fracking in the North of England do not want this. And because all the easy to reach oil has been extracted they are now after ‘tight oil’ in the South East.
The drill proposed at Leith Hill, as has already happened at other sites in Surrey and Sussex, involves horizontal drilling. It isn’t defined as fracking due to the lower fluid volumes involved. Instead they use acid to dissolve and frack the underlying rock (a process called acidization) to release the oil. M
Many involved in the campaign across the Weald formed the Weald Action Group and became experts in acidization and the environmental impacts of it. It is fracking by another name, with its own set of impacts falling through a loophole in regulation and good practice. Local communities and the environment are suffering as a result.
So what happens next? Our court dates are set for early July. There is another injunction by the giant fracking petrochemical company – INEOS– and two defendants have won an appeal to challenge this – although the hearing is scheduled for March 2019. And there is a recent short term injunction by fracking company Cuadrilla against peaceful protestors in Lancashire returning to court on the 10 July. This is all part of a trend to silence us.
Vicki is a campaigner against fossil fuel exploration and an active member of the Green Party, with past professional roles in environmental law and National Parks. To support this campaign, please contribute to their crowd-funder to help cover their legal costs.