Fracking on trial: lawfulness of Cuadrilla's fracking operation remains in doubt

Yesterday, three people from Bristol Rising Tide were on trial for a second day at Preston Magistrates Court following their action (1) which shut down Cuadrilla Resources' hydraulic fracturing (2) site beside the Ribble Estuary in Lancashire in December 2011.

Two of the defendants went free when it became clear that the charges against them had been poorly framed. They had been charged with aggravated trespass.

A defendant from Bristol Rising Tide commented:
“It’s great to go free but the threat that fracking poses to communities and the environment has not gone away. It is very likely that Cuadrilla will be fracking at sites in Lancashire in the near future. Do we trust a company that is prepared to flout its planning permission to handle a very dangerous technology like fracking?”

To have committed the offence of aggravated trespass it needed to be shown that the defendants had:

· Taken disruptive action beyond just trespassing on private property. The prosecution failed on this first point.

· Disrupted a lawful activity, in this case the drilling operations of Cuadrilla.

On Tuesday in court, the Head of Planning from Lancashire County Council, Alyn Perigo, confirmed that Cuadrilla were operating outside the period of their planning permission. Cuadrilla had in fact continued to drill two months beyond their agreed time limit. Mr Perigo also confirmed that by drilling in winter they had failed to meet a key condition to safeguard bird life from the adjacent Ribble Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest. The defence argued that this may have resulted in a breach of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Yesterday the prosecution had hoped to call Pat Waring, (3) an Ecologist employed by Cuadrilla Resources, to attempt to demonstrate that Cuadrilla had not been operating unlawfully at the time of the protest. In the event Mr Waring was not prepared to appear for the prosecution. This left the prosecution with the challenge of trying to demonstrate ‘lawfulness’ without an expert witness. In the event this was left undetermined as the prosecution had already failed on the first point.

The case against a third defendant will conclude this morning. She faces a different charge under section 69 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which is failing to leave land as soon as practicable when directed to do so by the senior officer at the scene.

Notes

1. On December 1st 2011, activists from Bristol Rising Tide occupied a drilling rig operated by Cuadrilla Resources at Hesketh Bank beside the Ribble Estuary. The action stopped drilling for 13 hours before the occupiers came down of their own accord. Photos of the action are available at https://secure.flickr.com/photos/71113300@N08/

2. Hydraulic fracturing is a method of extracting gas in shale rock. Huge amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals are forced into the ground at high pressure, a large proportion of which are never recovered. In the United States numerous spills of these fluids have contaminated irrigation water, affecting food supplies, and the health of surrounding communities. There are twelve licenses to frack for shale gas in the UK, five of which are held by Cuadrilla resources in Lancashire.

3. Early in 2011, Pat Waring of Ecology Services UK Ltd, was employed by Cuadrilla to produce the document: Method Statement – Birds, setting out how Cuadrilla could minimise disturbance to the overwintering and nesting birds that frequent Hesketh Bank beside the Ribble Estuary SSSI. The production of this document, and compliance with its contents, is a requirement of Condition 22 of Cuadrilla’s Planning Permission for the exploratory drilling operation.

For more information see:

www.risingtide.org.uk
www.frack-off.org.uk
www.frackingontrial.org