Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Fracking on trial: the verdict

Update: The judge has delivered sentences of 1 to 2 year conditional discharges and £750 fines: seems reasonable (being not-very-legally-minded, I'm not sure what the maximum and minimum sentences available were, but presumably this is towards the lenient end)

Update 2: Links to news coverage: here, here, here and here

Today sees the verdict of the trial of the 'fractivists' who stormed a drilling rig in Lancashire last year. The defendants have been found guilty of trespass and disrupting lawful activity. The defense was that they were preventing an unlawful activity from happening, which is a permissible reason do take an otherwise illegal action.

In the statement from the judge, he ruled that "It is clear to me that Cuadrilla is not committing an offence on the land". Clearly, Cuadrilla has undertaken every action required of it by local councils, and regulatory bodies. And bear in mind here that so far Cuadrilla have undertaken exploratory drilling and testing only. I'm sure that if Cuadrilla does find gas and decides to roll out production wells across Lancashire, then further planning permission and regulation will presumably be required. So the defense is perhaps misguided in arguing that action had to be taken to avoid the widespread despoilation of the Fylde peninsular, because Cuadrilla have not yet received permission to do so. They are currently testing the water, to see whether fracking is capable of releasing the reserves under Blackpool (it may be that they can't, in which case this would be a real much-ado-about-nothing).

What this case really highlights are questions over the fitness-for-purpose of the regulatory regime. Fracking has been used in many wells in the UK in the last 20 years. However, the scale of these fracks is much smaller than those envisaged for most shale gas applications. Clearly, the smaller scale fracks are covered by existing law (the law which renders Cuadrilla's activities lawful). However, do the existing regulations need amending to deal with the larger-scale fracking? I suspect that they do, and will be (we are already seeing this happen informally as Cuadrilla take on various obligations, such as the seismic monitoring of this and future sites, which, by current law at least, I'm not sure they are mandated to do).

Finally, a word on the fracktivists themselves, because what I've seen has surprised me. They have their own, very professional-looking website, where you can find out more. But the professionalism of the protestors is quite striking. I imagined the opposition to fracking to be a loose band of concerned locals (think of the people interviewed during the Gasland film, for example), the classic little guy fighting the big nasty corporations. However, among others the defense we able to call as witnesses an MP, a Cornell professor, environmental consultants, and scientists from the Tyndall Centre and more academics. Add on to this the fact that the protestors are not from Lancashire, but made the trip from Brighton specially, which kind-of devalues the protest a little - where are the people from around the affected area? Are they less upset about it than professional protestors making the trip from the other end of the country? This is certainly a common theme seen in the US, with Pennsylvania locals a lot more accepting of shale gas than New Yorkers coming through for a nice weekend before heading back to the big city.

Anyway, we are still awaiting sentencing at this point. I'd hope that the judge passes lenient sentences (I have absolutely no idea what the minimum and maximum proscribed sentences are), because any law that effects peaceful protest (even if it has a high nuisance value) does make me rather uncomfortable (even if I am in favour of well-regulated shale gas extraction in the UK).   

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