photo of protestors outside the High Court

Persons unknown. How an oil firm injunction threatens democracy

UK Oil & Gas (UKOG) is seeking an injunction – but against whom? Dave Timms on the latest attempt to clear the way for dirty energy and what it means for us all.
photo of Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth
By Dave Timms    |      Published:  05 Jul 2018    |      3 minute read

How do you describe yourself? Northerner? Mother? Plumber? Cricket fan?

Short, beardy, cockney, birdwatcher? Oh, sorry that’s me, Dave Timms, a campaigner and head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth.

We are a wonderfully diverse bunch in these islands but fossil fuel company UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) wants to give me, and perhaps you, a sinister new label: "persons unknown".

That’s because southern England’s Weald Basin contains oil, and fossil fuel companies want to get at it. Locals say "No" but drilling sites are increasingly pock-marking the area: where some of us see the Western Weald, oil and gas companies seem to imagine the Wild West.

What is the UKOG injunction against?

This week at the High Court UKOG is attempting to secure a legal injunction to ban a range of protest activity directed at its operations. The injunction is of almost unprecedented scope.

An injunction is something most people might associate with badly behaved celebrities hoping to protect their reputation. It means a court saying you can’t do something, and if you go on to do that something, you could be found in contempt of court. That's   a serious crime potentially punishable by heavy fines and prison sentences.

Some of the activity that UKOG wants to pre-emptively ban is already illegal – criminal damage for example. So why do they need an injunction?

UKOG’s injunction would also forbid a wide range of peaceful protest such as slow walking on the highway. Such activities have been carried out perfectly lawfully numerous times at drilling sites across the country. And local protests against UKOG's activities have included such acts of subversive outrage as afternoon tea parties  and picnics.

Who is the injunction against?

In a democracy, you wouldn’t think an oil and gas company could use this legal instrument to apply widely and vaguely to anyone who might do something. But that is what's happening this week in the High Court.

The implications for freedom of speech are chilling.

Normally injunctions must name the people they are brought against, but not this one. It is being sought against "persons unknown".

And don’t think you’ll be safe just because you don’t live in Sussex or Surrey and won’t be taking part in any of these would-be banned activities. UKOG’s injunction would catch anyone "encouraging" or "combining together" with others. Our lawyers can’t say with any certainty what this means – but we fear it could cover social media posts showing your support for a normally lawful protest.

The implications for freedom of speech are chilling.

Why Friends of the Earth opposes the UKOG injunction

So this is about an injunction that is being sought against "persons unknown", covering normally lawful activities and extending to anyone "encouraging" others to undertake them. You may read Kafka; you wouldn’t want to live it.

Friends of the Earth finds the breadth and scope of UKOG’s planned injunction outrageous. We are deeply concerned about its impact on free speech and the right to protest. This isn’t so much taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut as peeling a grape with a steamroller.

We have fears about the impact this injunction would have on lawful and legitimate opposition to UKOG’s drilling plans. And we're concerned about the increasing number of these injunctions and the frightening effect they could have on campaigning on climate change and other environmental issues.

Friends of the Earth is a defendant at the High Court alongside a group of brave local women – the so-called Surrey and Sussex 6 – who have come forward to fight it.

Bypassing democracy

It’s tempting to think that fossil fuel firms threatening civil liberties to suppress opposition to their activities is something that only happens in countries without a strong democracy and the rule of law. That would be complacent.

The government is already attempting to bypass key aspects of the local planning system so that it can force through fracking (please consider signing our petition below). When local communities object they could find themselves silenced, and unable to protest because lawyers and private security firms are waving High Court injunctions at them.

This injunction also threatens to take public order decisions out of the hands of the more democratically accountable local police force and put them into the hands of profit-seeking fossil fuel firms. It is draconian, sinister and anti-democratic.

It’s why fighting UKOG’s injunction is not just about stopping it from drilling our countryside. We must also stop it from undermining our democracy.

And now to that petition I mentioned.

The government wants to rewrite planning rules to make it easier for fracking companies to drill in search of climate-wrecking fossil fuels. The changes would sideline local people – who will be most affected. Please sign our petition to tell the government it can’t get away with trampling on local democracy.