An energy company boss has rejected angry claims by the Cheshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) that a ‘costly’ eviction of a protest camp near Chester could have been avoided.
Stephen Bowler, chief executive of IGas, was responding to a letter by PCC John Dwyer concerning the removal of anti-fracking activists from Duttons Lane, Upton, where the company had intended to test drill for coal bed methane (CBM) gas but then changed its mind just three weeks after the January 12, 2016, eviction.
The eviction was carried out by bailiffs but supported by 175 police officers following a court order.
Cheshire Police and Crime Commissioner Mr Dwyer feels the protesters would have left of their own accord had IGas made clear it was abandoning the site. He believes IGas should now foot the £200,000 policing bill rather than taxpayers but this has not been addressed by the firm.
Mr Bowler, in a response released under the Freedom of Information Act, told Mr Dwyer the decision to pull out could not have come earlier.
A ‘time-consuming’ desk-top analysis of the geology of the area had been necessary after acquiring Dart Energy and its portfolio in October 2014. This was followed by seismic testing with the results only received on February 1 which then required interpretation.
He wrote: “The conclusion drawn by IGas following the prospectivity review and review of the expedited section of the 3D seismic was that the CBM resource in this immediate area was unlikely to be commercially viable.
“We could not have made this decision and communicated our intention to key stakeholders, including the council, any earlier than we did."
Mr Bowler said in fact the eviction was due to have taken place earlier but IGas agreed to a postponement due to police resource constraints. A number of incidents followed, including harassment and vandalism against the landowners, the occupation of neighbouring land and an increase in people occupying the camp, which had become fortified ‘to a point which was dangerous’, wrote Mr Bowler.
He continued: “In your letter, you mention the safety of the public, protesters, bailiffs and police officers. It was for this reason that we urged eviction to be carried out as soon as possible. As a responsible leaseholder, we considered it necessary to carry out the eviction in order to put a stop to health and safety risks that existed at the site through its illegal occupation by the trespassers.”
Mr Bowler added: “It is our belief that the trespassers would not have left the site voluntarily, even if we had been in a position to make a decision not to proceed with CBM exploration at this site prior to the eviction taking place.”
A furious Mr Dwyer, a Tory elected PCC, who is seeking re-election this May, wrote back saying: “I remain of the opinion that, had the eviction been postponed until after this decision had been taken, the need for a costly eviction which placed the safety of the public, protesters and police at risk would have been completely removed.
“I am disappointed that you have not addressed the issue of funding the police operation and make no offer to refund Cheshire ratepayers.”