Fracking opponents have claimed an early victory in the battle over British shale gas exploration, forming a “legal blockade” to thwart the controversial process at a site in the South Downs National Park.
Five landowners including Viscount Cowdray have written to Ed Davey, the energy secretary, to say that they do not give permission for any drilling beneath their land, which surrounds a proposed exploration site near Fernhurst, West Sussex.
The opposition would effectively block company Celtique Energie from drilling a horizontal well of sufficient length to ‘frack’ it to extract any shale oil or gas it discovers.
Under trespass law, Celtique would have to ask Mr Davey and the courts to overrule the landowners.
Andrew Wiseman of Harrison Grant solicitors, representing the landowners, said the proposed site of the drilling rig was now “totally surrounded”, making fracking from it “impossible”.
Even if the rig was placed elsewhere on the land, it would make fracking “incredibly difficult”, he said.
The Telegraph revealed last week that ministers are considering overhauling trespass law to make it easier to drill under land without owners' consent, removing the need to take hostile landowners to court, amid fears that blockades such as in Fernhurst could otherwise stymie hopes of a UK shale gas boom.
Campaign group Greenpeace has signed up thousands of landowners across the country to deny permission for drilling.
Celtique Energie is currently seeking planning permission to drill a 8,600ft vertical well and then potentially a 853ft horizontal well.
Geoff Davies, Celtique chief executive, said it would have sought permission to drill up to 5,000 feet horizontally, but scaled this back in order to remain beneath the land where it has agreed access.
It believes it may find oil or gas that would not need fracking to extract, but also plans to test the shale rocks, where any oil and gas would be tightly trapped and require fracking - pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rocks.
If Celtique discovers shale gas or oil, it would then seek planning permission to drill a longer horizontal well and frack it - pitting the company against the hostile landowners.
“If they are not amenable to approving [access], we only have one recourse at this time: to apply to the secretary of state under statutory easement to drill such a well,” Mr Davies said. He said a change in trespass law would be "helpful".
“Something going on many thousands of feet under the ground doesn’t affect the surface or the landowners at all. I don’t believe this will affect landowners and therefore they shouldn’t be concerned about it.”
Viscount Cowdray said he recognised the blockade was a "delaying tactic" that could be overturned in court or by a change of law. But he said a law change would be “an extraordinary manoeuvre by the government”.
“This would involve millions of people,” he said. “It is not just small landowners, it is householders too.”
He has also claimed ancient rights to the verges on the road that would be used to access the drilling site in a further attempt to frustrate any drilling taking place.
Fellow landowners in the Fernhurst block told the Telegraph of their anger at the government’s plans to weaken their rights in favour of fracking firms.
John Buchanan, 50, a semi-retired IT consultant whose land stretches to about 500 ft from the drilling site, said fracking was simply “the wrong thing to do in a national park”.
He feared fracking was worse than conventional drilling as it was “more intensive and more potentially dangerous”.
“It will generate a lot of traffic through the village on a road that was never built to take it. It’s a peaceful little corner of a national park and a greenfield site. It’s worth preserving," he said.
"There are less damaging places they could choose to do this. My house is about 20 ft from main road and it rattles when anything big and heavy comes past as it is.”
Mr Buchanan said he had always voted Conservative but was now unsure and would be “angry” if the government tried to change trespass law.
“Part of me thinks of Thatcher with the poll tax and Blair with Iraq,” he said. “I think fracking is Cameron’s equivalent of that. It’s where he is aggressively going against public opinion.”
Both Mr Buchanan and Marcus Adams, 56, another signatory, said there had been more local sympathy for an abortive proposal to build a solar farm nearby than there was for proposed drilling.
Mr Adams, a chief risk officer with an insurance firm, lives about 1,100 ft from the site. He said there must be more appropriate drilling sites elsewhere. “Why would you choose to site in a national park, along a very small, narrow country road and so near to where people live?”
He said he was not convinced the regulatory regime around fracking was adequate and warned that proposed community benefits of £100,000 for each fracked exploratory well would make no difference.
“Frankly, people aren’t interested in £100,000. I could raise £100,000 to make this go away,” he said. “Even if it was £1m, people would not be interested.”
He claimed house sales in the village had fallen through because of the application.
“Just talking to local estate agents we believe it’s not unreasonable there would be a be 10-20pc drop in house prices within a mile or mile and a half of the site. Fernhurst is a pretty affluent village; that equates to £500m of equity that’s vanished,” he said.
He added: "I am the typical, safe Tory voter. I find it absolutely incredible that this government is bending over backwards to encourage this industry.
"This government is willing to legislate to take away rights of homeowners and landowners, for the benefit of whom?”
He suggested that proceeds of drilling would ultimately go to “line the pockets of US hedge funds” and other company owners.
A spokesman for Celtique Energy said it firmly believed the site was "a very good location for a temporary exploration well”.
He said the site was naturally screened by woodland to mitigate the visual and noise impact of the drilling and that it was as far from homes as planning guidelines required.
He said the drilling would see only “a modest incremental increase on existing traffic levels during the very short duration peak period of activity on site”.