29 year old Constance Whiston was strikingly calm when her protest against oil drilling arrived at the High Court in London. Wearing walking boots and shorts, she sat quietly on the pavement outside the prestigious Rolls Building on Fetter Lane eating a salad.
Police and court workers looked on as her supporters unfurled colourful banners in the hot sunshine. They began to chant "Back off UKOG!"
Constance's personal fight against oil drilling in the south-east of England began when she joined the protests to protect Leith Hill near Dorking. "I grew up in Leith Hill," she explains. "It’s a beautiful place, and I want to protect the ancient and sacred woods.”
Attack on democracy
In March 2018, UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) applied for an injunction to prevent protests at its sites at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex and Horse Hill in Surrey. It also covers the company's offices in Guildford.
Constance is the youngest of the so-called ‘Sussex and Surrey Six’, a remarkable group of women fighting the oil company's outrageous attempt to silence opposition.
The other women are Vicky Elcoate, Natasha Doane, Ann Stewart, Jacqui Hamlin and Sue Jameson.
They have a wide range of experience. Ann Stewart has long battled oil drilling inside the South Downs National Park. Sue is an actor who's appeared in a number of TV shows including Coronation Street, Doctor Who and the crime drama New Tricks. Vicky has a background working in environmental law and National Parks.
The rise of the injunction
Sussex and Surrey have seen a number of protest sites popping up in recent years, as fossil fuel companies have attempted to get at underground hydrocarbon deposits.
As with communities fighting fracking in other parts of the UK, demonstrators have used peaceful tactics. These includes slow-walking in front of heavy goods vehicles and holding tea parties outside the gates of the sites.
But as the protests have escalated, so the oil and gas companies have begun to respond with increasingly draconian methods.
In November 2017, petrochemicals giant INEOS was granted a wide-ranging injunction against any interference with its fracking activities. In July 2018, citizens were unable to halt an injunction being granted to Cuadrilla relating to protests at the Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire.
These injunctions have been aimed at “persons unknown”, in other words anyone who opposes drilling plans.
The UKOG injunction is just as sinister, but even broader in its scope.
It covers anyone combining together or encouraging others to undertake protests. Friends of the Earth fears this could be as simple as sharing details of a protest on Facebook.
The women's motivations for fighting the injunction are varied. For Constance, it's about promoting public and environmental health. For Vicky Elcoate, the biggest danger is the threat to free speech.
"The potential for other companies to use this wide-ranging and draconian step was enormous," she says.
Vicky stresses that there is also no time to lose if the UK is to meet its obligations to cut greenhouse gas emissions. "The threat from climate change means we must keep fossil fuels in the ground and move quickly towards an energy future based on low carbon," she says.
The Sussex and Surrey Six raised more than £20,000 from public donations to fund their case. Their challenge was heard in July at the High Court in London in front of Justice John Male QC.
The women were represented by Stephanie Harrison QC, who has a track record of fighting civil liberty cases.
And Friends of the Earth too is concerned about the impact the UKOG injunction will have on campaigning and free speech.
Mr Justice Male QC granted the organisation right to join the case as an additional defendant.
"This isn't so much taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut as using a steamroller to peel a grape" says Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth campaigner.
Mr Sanderson [the CEO of UKOG] has said he plans to have back-to-back wells across the countryside. Well good luck to him as we’ll have back-to-back protests against thisSue Jameson, protestor
While the women await the outcome of the case they are determined to carry on their peaceful protests while they still can.
Has joining this long fight been detrimental to their lives?
Quite the contrary. “Being part of this protest has been incredible," says Constance. "I’ve met so many new friends and got to know the local community. There are just so many people who are against it."
You can help us to support these women and others to fight oil drilling and fracking in their communities.
The High Court granted the injunction but it was much less wide-ranging than UKOG had wanted. Friends of the Earth and the Sussex and Surrey Six are now taking our challenge to the Court of Appeal in June 2019.