Viscount digs deep for law to halt fracking

   Viscount Cowdray, pictured at his West Sussex estate, is working hard to block fracking

Viscount Cowdray, pictured at his West Sussex estate, is working hard to block fracking

VISCOUNT COWDRAY, one of Britain’s biggest landowners, has thrown his weight behind a new battle to thwart fracking in some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes, including the South Downs national park.

Cowdray, a former film producer who owns a 16,500- acre estate in the South Downs, is supporting a legal challenge in which landowners will refuse permission to any company wishing to extract oil or gas from under their land.

He fears that thousands of wells could be dug across some of the most beautiful parts of England. In particular, he says, it would be “entirely unacceptable” to allow fracking in the South Downs national park. “It would be the industrialisation of a very beautiful part of the world,” he added.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which provides data on the energy industry, has estimated that up to 20,000 wells may be required for the significant extraction of shale gas.

The government sees fracking as an important new source of energy and is backing it with tax breaks. There are significant estimated reserves in the northwest and in southern counties that oil and gas companies believe could be exploited.

However, critics claim the process, which involves blasting water, sand and chemicals at rock to release gas and oil, can contaminate ground water, cause noise pollution and pollute land.

More than 1,000 protesters set up camp in the summer at an exploratory drilling in Balcombe, West Sussex. A key focus of the anti-fracking movement is now likely to move to Fernhurst, in the South Downs national park, where Cowdray lives. The oil and gas company Celtique Energie is to submit a planning application for test drilling on five acres of pasture and woodland in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Cowdray, 69, whose family wealth is calculated at £400m in The Sunday Times Rich List, has enjoyed a successful and varied career, from a job in the City to producing the Rolling Stones film Sympathy for the Devil, to the management of his family estate. He is now immersed in the battle against fracking, along with supporters of the campaign group Frack Free Fernhurst.

Over recent weeks he has registered the verges next to the narrow access to the Celtique Energie’s proposed drilling site as under the ownership of his estate. He will refuse any request to widen the access, and does not believe lorries will be able to drive in without crossing the verges.

More seriously, he has notified companies likely to seek permission for significant fracking activities that he will refuse any permission to drill under his estate even if the drilling site is on land owned by a third party. The legal move — if it is not successfully challenged in the courts or quashed by the government — will block any significant fracking in the area where the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson once lived.

Cowdray’s land surrounds the proposed test drilling site and covers a large part of the South Downs.

More than 20,000 other homeowners and landowners have said they will also refuse permission for drilling, under a “legal block” co-ordinated by Greenpeace. The industry says it will try to negotiate to drill under people’s land, but would then ask the government to resolve the issue.

Cowdray said his concern about fracking was not only the risk of pollution to groundwater but also the disruptive effect of wells being dug. One industry-sponsored report said each drilling site could require 31,288 lorry movements over two decades.

Cowdray said any fracking sites would be on a far bigger scale than the onshore oil wells which have already been sunk in some parts of the country. “This is a newly created national park and it would be an extraordinary decision to allow fracking. The vast majority of people in this area are opposed to it,” he said.

Cowdray no longer lives in Cowdray Park, his ancestral home, because he and his family found it too large after he inherited the estate in 1995. He now lives in a hilltop house in Fernhurst overlooking the proposed test drilling site.

Anna Jones, an energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said she was delighted that Cowdray had decide to join the legal block. “Under English law, if you own your land, your rights extend to all the ground beneath it,” she said. “That means if someone drills under your home without permission, it is trespass.”

The industry accepts that the legal rights of Cowdray and others will need to be acknowledged. Ken Cronin, chief executive of the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group, said: “The definition of land ownership under British law is from the surface to the centre of the earth. Operators will try to negotiate with landowners over the drilling activity under the land.”

The government has already tried to help the industry through proposed changes in planning requirements so that onshore oil and gas operators would not be required to serve notice to landowners about drilling under their land.

Even if this goes through, it will not prevent landowners such as Cowdray making legal challenges. Greenpeace has said that any attempt by ministers to remove common-law property rights was “contemptible, undemocratic and bound to fail”.

Michael Fallon, the energy minister, has said that Wiltshire, Hampshire, Surrey and East and West Sussex were potential sources of energy.

There is, however, some concern of a backlash among constituents in the southern counties, which form the heartland of Tory support.

Geoff Davies, chief executive of Celtique Energie, said any attempt by Cowdray to block access to a proposed drilling site because of his estate’s ownership of the verges would be challenged.

Davies said the company did not need to drill under Cowdray’s land for the exploratory work, but if reserves were found the company would seek to obtain approval “from any affected landowner to drill horizontal wells under their land”.

Davies said it would be time-consuming for such legal issues to resolved by the government or in the courts and “therefore the preference was to explore and exploit under lands with willing landowners”.

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