Anti-fracking campaigners have claimed victory after an energy company abandoned its plans to drill beneath their homes in the South Downs national park.
Celtique Energy has told residents it will not drill horizontally under their land, though it will push ahead with a vertical well at its own site.
The development, which followed a “legal blockade” by the local landowners around the site, is the latest in a growing controversy over underground drilling for shale gas. However the landowners’ victory may be shortlived – ministers intend to change the trespass law that allows owners to refuse permission for drilling under their land, despiteopposition from three-quarters of the public.
Ministers also face an attack in parliament from Labour on Tuesday, who are condemning the coalition’s 50% tax break for fracking as “a gift from George Osborne to his pet project”. Tom Greatrex, shadow energy minister, said: “It is typical of a government that is more interested in inflating the hype around fracking than ensuring it is handled in a responsible way.”
Celtique Energy had initially planned to drill exploratory wells up to 5,000 feet horizontally from the well pad near Fernhurst in West Sussex. But its chief executive, Geoff Davies, told residents by letter: “By removing the horizontal well from the [planning] application, Celtique has shortened the length of time it would be drilling on site by 34 weeks (eight months) and reduced the number of environmental impacts associated with the project.”
Landowners including Viscount Cowdray had refused Celtique permission to drill under their properties, forcing the company to fight a legal battle to proceed. Marcus Adams, another of the five landowners who formed the legal blockade around the Celtique site, said: “It’s encouraging to see Celtique have scaled back their drilling plans at least for now, but we won’t give up the fight until they’ve officially abandoned their ambition to frack in the heart of this beautiful national park. The heavy lorry traffic, noise and air pollution caused by fracking will leave a massive scar on this area of outstanding natural beauty – and all of this to line the pockets of a company mostly owned by US financiers. It just doesn’t make sense.”
In February, Celtique’s Davies said a change in trespass law would be “helpful”, while Cowdray said he recognised the blockade was a “delaying tactic”, but that changing the law of trespass would be “an extraordinary manoeuvre by the government”.
More than 45,000 people around the country have joined legal moves to use trespass laws to block energy companies from fracking under their properties. “If anyone was in any doubt as to why ministers are so desperate to strip home and land owners of their property rights, look no further than Fernhurst,” said Greenpeace energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale. “[But] this is a highly toxic policy which could trigger a ballot box backlash for coalition MPs across the country. Ministers should take the foot off the shale gas pedal and start listening to people’s concerns.”
The government has already made controversial legal changes to make fracking easier by removing the requirement for individual homeowners to be notified of a planning application to drill or frack beneath their home. In January, a Lords committee reported that ministers had rushed through this planning reform despite overwhelming opposition and without adequate scrutiny.
Francis Egan, chief executive of rival shale gas firm Cuadrilla, told the Telegraph this week that he thought homeowners should receive little, if any, compensation for drilling under their land. “I don’t think there’s any disturbance. If someone flies two miles above your house, do you get compensation?” he said.
On Tuesday, the government’s 50% tax break for shale gas production will be challenged by Labour in parliament. “Tory ministers have sought to compare these tax changes to the fiscal regime in the North Sea,” said Greatrex. “But there is a big difference between tax treatment of marginal fields on a case-by-case basis and a blanket tax cut [for fracking]. There is no evidence it will do anything to stimulate industry.”
On 8 May, a House of Lords committee urged changes in the law to fast-track fracking as a “national priority” and to ensure property owners cannot delay drilling under their land. But it also noted that tax cuts are unlikely to accelerate fracking: “The new tax regime … is probably not a key factor since investment decisions are likely to turn on expected costs and volumes. Nor has tax been the main obstacle to development of onshore shale gas in the UK.”
Greatrex, who said shale gas could be part of a balanced energy mix for the UK, added: “Shale gas extraction in the UK can only happen with robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and public consent.”