Cuadrilla has halted its oil-drilling operations in West Sussex in anticipation of an influx of anti-fracking protesters at the site this weekend.
The company, which is pioneering the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing in Britain, said that after discussions with police it had doubled the height of its security fences and installed razor wire at the Balcombe site, and had called a halt to the drilling until further notice. A spokesman said this was owing to concerns “for the health and safety of employees and protesters”.
Hundreds of people from the “No Dash For Gas” campaign group are expected on Saturday to join the scores of activists and local people already at the site.
No Dash For Gas is comprised of protesters against fossil fuels from around the UK, who have demonstrated at power stations in the past. This year the group has decided to set up its annual camp at Balcombe to highlight opposition to fracking.
A Guardian poll this week found public opinion sharply divided on the issue of fracking: across the country, 44% of voters said they would support fracking in Britain, with 30% against and the rest undecided. But when asked whether they would welcome fracking in their local area, the proportion of supporters fell back to 40%, and the number opposed jumped to 40%.
Cuadrilla has said it has no immediate intention to frack at Balcombe, but is conducting exploratory drilling on an old oil well, abandoned by Conoco in the 1980s, to see if it can be made economically viable. If conventional drilling does not produce oil at the site, the company may apply in future for a fracking licence.
The past three weeks of protests have delayed drilling operations at the site but this is the first time exploration has been called off because of the threat of direct action.
The company’s spokesman said: “After taking advice from Sussex Police, Cuadrilla is scaling back operations ahead of this weekend’s No Dash For Gas event. During this time, our main concern is the safety of our staff, Balcombe’s residents and the protesters following threats of direct action against the exploration site. We will resume full operations as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Protesters outside the in Balcombe site said they were sceptical of the company’s motives. “They are saying they are stopping, but it’s just temporary so what does that mean?” asked one village resident, who preferred not to be named. “They are not going away. They are just waiting to see what happens.” He said local residents were broadly supportive of the new wave of demonstrators poised to descend on the village, though some had reservations. “The people we’ve had here have been lovely, and have done a lot to raise the profile of what we are trying to do here.”He said villagers were broadly supportive of the protesters.