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Court proceedings might not be the best way to deal with fracking protests, says expert

Taking court action to remove protestors from the Sussex site where energy firm Cuadrilla is carrying out exploratory drilling linked to shale gas deposits in the area may not be the most effective course of action, an expert has said.20 Aug 2013

Stuart Wortley of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that although the firm would be able to take such action "quickly", the "inevitable media attention" could escalate the protests as well as giving protestors a "platform for their anti-fracking views".

However, as long as the protests remained peaceful, it would be up to the owners of the occupied land to decide whether to take action to recover possession, he said.

"Unless the protestors commit public order offences, the police are only likely to make arrests if they obstruct the highway or they get access to the Cuadrilla site and succeed in obstructing or disrupting business activities," he said.

"Where a protest is peaceful, the police will leave it to the owners of the private land which is occupied to take action to recover possession. Businesses facing a protest need to understand how and when to seek orders for possession and civil injunctions, and they need to move quickly. An injunction can be obtained before a protest has started provided there is clear evidence to show that the protest is being planned," he said.

Cuadrilla announced last week that it was "temporarily scaling back" its drilling operations at Balcombe, Sussex for the duration of the protests, which are scheduled to run until Wednesday. The company plans to drill a conventional exploration well at the site but will not be able to carry out hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as 'fracking', at the site without further planning and environmental permits.

"External groups protesting against hydraulic fracturing at Balcombe do so without any work proposal from Cuadrilla to judge," said Francis Egan, the company's chief executive. "Any hydraulic fracturing proposal would require a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment, public consultations and multi-agency regulatory reviews, all of which would be available for scrutiny."

Fracking involves pumping water at high pressure into shale rock to create narrow fractures which allow natural gas contained there to flow out and be captured. Although the technology is still at an early stage, a recent report by the British Geological Survey showed that there was more than twice as much shale gas in the north of England alone than there was previously thought to be in the entire UK.

The Government had placed a temporary moratorium on fracking operations pending the outcome of an investigation into how the nature of the process presents a risk of seismic earth tremors occurring, but lifted the ban late last year. Fracking is now permitted subject to a range of regulatory controls and permits being put in place to mitigate any risks to health and safety or the environment.

Energy and environmental law expert Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons previously said that although the protestors seemed particularly well-organised, shale gas was not the only form of energy generation to "feel the wrath of objectors". "Onshore wind projects and new nuclear power stations have been subjected to the same treatment," he said.