Five Sussex landowners are threatening to block a small exploration company from drilling for oil under their land, in a legal challenge to Britain’s embryonic fracking industry.
Solicitors for residents near the village of Fernhurst, West Sussex, have written to Celtique Energie and Ed Davey, the energy secretary, to deny the company permission to prospect for oil under their property.
The move comes after the government said it may seek to change trespass law to make it easier for companies to drill under privately owned land.
Celtique obtained the agreement of a local landowner to drill a vertical well on his property. But in order to drill a further lateral well, it will need the consent of landowners on adjacent plots.
It is these landowners who have written to the company refusing it permission to drill. They said if necessary they will seek a legal injunction to prevent it.
Marcus Adams, one of the landowners, said Celtique’s proposed exploration programme would harm the local environment. “There must be less sensitive sites to explore than in the South Downs National Park, which is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty,” he said.
He said the drilling site, known as Nine Acre Copse, was adjacent to an ancient bluebell wood, while the access road to it runs along a 500-year-old hedgerow. Industrial activity would harm local bat populations, he said, as well as other wildlife.
Celtique’s chief executive, Geoff Davies, said it had chosen the site at Fernhurst because “geologically it’s the most likely place that shales could work”.
He said the landowners’ tactics threatened to strangle Britain’s shale industry at birth: “If this happens all over the country, it will delay the evaluation of resources that could make a big contribution to the UK’s oil and gas reserves, to taxation and employment.”
Fernhurst is now set to become the latest battleground in an increasingly fraught conflict between opponents and supporters of shale. The government, hoping to replicate America’s shale boom on British soil, has tried to encourage the industry with tax breaks and incentives for local communities.
But there is strong resistance to shale gas exploration in some quarters. Environmentalists worry that fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture the shale rock and release the oil and gas trapped inside, can contaminate groundwater and cause earthquakes. People near potential fracking sites fear the impact of large-scale shale development on local roads and air quality.
Anti-fracking protesters converged on the Sussex village of Balcombe last year for a series of angry protests against Cuadrilla, the only company to have fracked for gas in the UK, which was drilling for oil in the area.
Celtique believes there are some 30bn barrels of oil in place in the exploration licences it owns in and around Fernhurst, although only a small fraction of that will be recoverable.
Late last year, the company applied for planning permission to drill a “data-gathering” exploration well at Nine Acre Copse, and another in Wisborough Green. Celtique already has a permit to drill in nearby Billingshurst.
But opponents lodged so many objections with South Downs National Park Authority – there were at least 1,650 comments on its website at the last count – that its system crashed.