Confrontation Between NGOs and Shale Gas Industry Peaks in the UK

British environmental campaigners say that some oil and gas companies could have been trying to silence several critics of the unconventional gas industry with threats of legal action, affecting the freedom of speech of green groups. Oil and gas companies firmly reject this allegation, claiming that it is part of the strategy of "certain" environmental lobbies, which are attempting to give a misrepresentation of those companies that invest in hydrocarbons. 

Despite all these different viewpoints, one thing emerges clear: Britain provides the perfect battleground for the standoff between E&P companies and environmental NGOs. 

Almost legal actions? 

Last week, Richard Dixon, a leading environmental campaigner, said that Australia’s Dart Energy had attempted to gag him. Dixon is the Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES) and Board Member of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

SEPA is Scotland’s environmental regulator, accountable through Scottish Ministers to the Scottish Parliament.

Dixon explained he was threatened with legal action if he did not sign a letter stating he would comply, remove five tweets from his Twitter feed relating to Dart, and refrain from posting any further comments about its activities.

"It’s a pretty scary experience to be faced with legal action from a multi-million pound company. This attempt to gag my comments has back-fired and instead it has brought the issues relating to fracking and coal bed methane extraction in Scotland to a larger audience,” wrote Dixon in a note released last week referring to Dart Energy. 

Dixon and Friends of the Earth Scotland commented on Twitter that the company has been experiencing financial difficulties, claiming that the company was about to go bust. 

The Australian company argues that this is not the case, advocating that share price has risen strongly since then. Dart Energy is investing in exploration of unconventional gas in the UK, planning to drill 22 wells at 14 sites, between Airth and the Forth Valley. It is currently waiting on the Scottish Government to rule on its plans.

According to Dart Energy, the problem stems from the fact that Dixon represents both FoES and SEPA.

“Dart Energy viewed a small number of his Tweets as in severe conflict with his role as a Board Member of SEPA, therefore it asked him to remove them and stop tweeting about the Company due to his obvious conflict of interest as a Board Member of SEPA,” said Dart’s spokesperson. 

Dart added that the letter was not intended to affect the freedom of speech of the environmental NGO. 

“The letter to Richard Dixon was not related to his involvement as a Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, but solely as a member of the Board of SEPA,” commented a spokesperson for the company.

Dixon - Dart Energy: clash and climb-down 

After the first contact, Dixon received another letter, paving the way to a truce. According to Dixon, the threat of legal action was lifted after he wrote to Dart to communicate that he always declares an interest at SEPA board meeting if there is an agenda item related to an active campaign of FoES.

“I received a letter from Dart which was a climb-down on their previous correspondence and stated that since I was tweeting on behalf of Friends of the Earth Scotland they would not pursue the matter further,” said Dixon.

FoES’ Director said he would continue to voice the concerns of green groups. As other environmentalist, he thinks unconventional gas exploration should not be given the green light.  He claims that the unconventional gas would affect negatively the environment, with no significant economic and financial returns. 

In the meanwhile, activists remain in Balcombe

Things may be therefore settled after Dart Energy refrained from pursuing the matter further. But this is not the case, as the confrontation between companies and environmental groups will clearly continue. The arm wrestling between the unconventional gas industry and the NGOs is not about to come to an end any time soon. 

It is reasonable to imagine that both sides will try their strategies to gain the upper hand and it is difficult to say what the result will be, as energy companies have significant economic resources to promote their business while the NGO lobby body proved to be resilient. 

The determination of the environmentalists is crystal clear. In Balcombe, more than 100 arrests have been made since the demonstrations sprung up in July. Nonetheless, activists are intentioned to remain in the camp outside the site in West Sussex, where Cuadrilla Resources is proceeding with its exploratory programme. 

At the same time, a network of protesters is rising also in the rest of the UK. The new Frack Free Wales is organizing a demonstration in Cardiff on September 24.

What’s next?

The arm wrestling between the industry and environmentalists has just been started. And this confrontation is particularly interesting given its scale and the interests involved. 

Many oil and gas companies recently moved their main offices to London, while British environmentalists are organized and efficiently structured. They are probably the best organized in Europe.

That is why the UK is the perfect battleground, the perfect setting for the arm wrestling between companies and green groups. The confrontation between Dart Energy and Dixon is probably set aside, but the clash between environmentalists and companies have never been that lively. 

Sergio Matalucci


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