Fracking Company Pleads ‘No Contest’ in Pennsylvania

Fracking Company Featured in ‘Gasland’ Pleads No Contest to Criminal Pollution Charges in Pennsylvania

A natural-gas drilling company pleaded no contest Tuesday to criminal charges related to the contamination of drinking water in a rural Pennsylvania town more than a decade ago. 

Coterra Energy Inc. entered the plea in Susquehanna County Court, two years after the Pennsylvania attorney general charged its predecessor, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., with 15 criminal counts for allegedly causing flammable methane to leak from natural-gas wells into residential water supplies in Dimock, Pa. 

The company also agreed to pay $16.29 million for the construction of a new public water system. The company will provide bottled water while the water system is under construction and pay water bills for between 18 and 20 homes for 75 years, according to prosecutors. 

Coterra said it worked with prosecutors “to resolve historical matters and create a path forward for all parties.” The company said it strives to follow best practices and exceed industry standards. It previously had maintained that the methane in residents’ wells was naturally occurring.

Dimock, a small community in the northeast corner of the state, gained national attention when the 2010 documentary “Gasland” showed residents lighting their tap water on fire.

Under state law, a plea of no contest, or “nolo contendere,” means the company accepts the criminal conviction, but the plea can’t be used as an admission of guilt in a separate civil proceeding.  

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Tories under pressure to make fracking ban ‘U-turn proof’

Conservative MPs are being urged to formally pledge that they will never vote for fracking, following months of uncertainty in which successive Tory administrations have flip-flopped over going ahead with drilling operations across the country.

The Liberal Democrats have secured a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday opposing any fracking in England without the support of local communities. The move is intended to make the current moratorium on fracking, recently reinstated by Rishi Sunak, “U-turn proof”.

Following her victory over Mr Sunak, Ms Truss’s energy secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg lifted the ban on fracking and reportedly began examining  ways to reduce environmental and public scrutiny of such drilling projects. The row escalated after the Labour Party tabled a vote on whether to outlaw fracking, and Ms Truss ordered MPs to vote with her administration on the fraught issue, effectively telling her MPs to vote against a key 2019 manifesto pledge. After Ms Truss’s record-short stint as prime minister, Mr Sunak then U-turned again, to reinstate the 2019 moratorium

Liberal Democrat Levelling Up spokesperson Helen Morgan, who secured Tuesday’s debate, told The Independent: “Conservative MPs have lurched to different positions on fracking from month to month. Who knows what they will do next? With my debate they now have the opportunity to make amends with the constituents they let down. They need to make clear that they will not support the imposition of fracking on our communities. “I’m challenging every Conservative MP to pledge in public that they will defend their communities if fracking is imposed on them.”

She added: “Conservative MPs know that fracking won’t bring down energy bills and that their constituents don’t want it. They should put their constituents before their party, be honest with the public about their views, and make the pause on the fracking of our countryside u-turn proof.”

Jamie Peters, fracking campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said Ms Truss had failed to appreciate the contempt for fracking from across the political spectrum, including among Conservatives, and said a ban would let Mr Sunak’s administration to focus on policies to tackle the climate and energy crises. He told The Independent: “The last prime minister’s attempts to revive fracking saw her government fall to pieces and her premiership along with it. That’s because she underestimated the huge opposition to fracking across the country and within her own ranks. “At every turn, fracking has been shown to be unviable. Introducing a firm and final ban on fracking would allow the government to focus on real solutions that will genuinely ease the cost of living crisis and protect our planet.”

Philip Evans, oil and gas campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said the “constant uncertainty” caused by the government’s stance on fracking has been disastrous for the country. He said: “Last month, 326 Conservative MPs u-turned on their 2019 manifesto pledge by voting for an unpopular, unproven fracking industry that has no future. Then three weeks ago, Rishi Sunak decided the ban would stay in place – local communities don’t want the heavy traffic, noise and air pollution, and the risk of earthquakes didn’t help.

“If fracking did take place, it would be disastrous for local communities and the climate, but this constant uncertainty has been almost as damaging. People have spent years dedicated to fighting fracking in their areas and they have been left in limbo, because of a government that can’t make their minds up, and can’t be trusted to keep their word.”

Shropshire MP secures Commons debate on fracking

Shropshire MP secures Commons debate on fracking

North Shropshire MP Helen Morgan has secured a debate in Parliament on opposing fracking without community consent.
Helen Morgan MP

The debate is intended to make the pause on fracking plans in the UK “U-turn proof” by pressuring Conservative MPs to speak out publicly and pledge to oppose any further change by the Government.

Mrs Morgan, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Levelling Up, has already promised to campaign to stop any fracking taking place in North Shropshire.

The move follows a significant backlash towards the 326 Conservative MPs who voted against a motion in Parliament which would have led to a ban on fracking, despite many of them having stated their opposition to the practice previously.

Liberal Democrats have warned that without renewed pressure a further U-turn on fracking remains a persistent threat.

Mrs Morgan said: “It’s really important that beautiful countryside in places like North Shropshire is protected from damaging drilling.

“With my debate, Tory MPs now have the opportunity to make amends with the constituents they let down. They need to make clear that they will not support the imposition of fracking on our communities.


“I’m challenging every Conservative MP to pledge in public that they will defend their communities if fracking is imposed on them.

“They know that fracking won’t bring down energy bills and that their constituents don’t want it. They should put their constituents before their party and make the pause on the fracking of our countryside U-turn proof.”


Protest is our fundamental right. But not content with its new Policing Act which gives police even more powers to shut down protests, the Government is attempting to further criminalise people for taking to the streets with its Public Order Bill.

The UK’s environmental movement has a long history of using protest as a strategy. Disruption is often at the heart of this, either disrupting infrastructure projects themselves in an attempt to stop them going ahead (roads, fracking sites), or targeting existing infrastructure (fuel depots, airport runways or bridges) to disrupt others. Disruption gets people’s attention in a way that a conventional demonstration with placards seldom does – although it is not without the risk of backlash.

Recent climate activism has followed this disruptive tradition, with Extinction Rebellion blocking key London streets and bridges, Insulate Britain blocking motorways and Just Stop Oil targeting transport fuel distribution networks.

The government is keen to use the law to try to stamp out this type of disruptive protest. At the heart of this drive is the public order bill, introduced in May 2022 by the then home secretary, Priti Patel. But in introducing this bill the government may not have considered how the environmental movement has an equally long history of using criminal law to its advantage.

Getting arrested is often part of the protest strategy. While the new bill is intended to crack down on protest, it may inadvertently provide an avenue for further activism. One could see environmental groups bringing private prosecutions for climate offences committed under the bill, or at the very least arguing that the police should be bringing charges against the other side.

Take the offence of “locking on”. Section 1 of the bill states that a person commits an offence if they attach themselves, someone else or an object to another person, an object or land.

That act must cause, or be capable of causing, “serious disruption” to two or more people or an organisation, and the person must do this intentionally or be reckless to the consequences. The bill provides a defence if the person charged can prove they had a “reasonable excuse” for the act.

This offence is clearly aimed at protesters, who have used gluing and other forms of locking on as a way of preventing their quick removal by the police. But there is no reason why the climate movement cannot argue that a driver of a petrol tanker, in connecting their trailer with a cab, is “attaching an object to another object”.

This attachment, it could be argued, would help cause serious climate disruption to far more than just two individuals. While the driver may not have intended such disruption, one could argue that they are reckless as to whether it will have such consequences. Will the driver have a reasonable excuse defence? That’s for them to prove – the climate movement may try to argue that they do not.

Section 3 sets out an offence of causing serious disruption by tunnelling. It states that a person commits an offence if they create or participate in the creation of a tunnel, and the tunnel causes, or is capable of causing, serious disruption.

Again, they must intend or be reckless as to whether the creation or existence of the tunnel will have this consequence. The section similarly provides for a “reasonable excuse” defence and states that a person will be deemed to have a reasonable excuse if the tunnel was authorised by the relevant landowner.

With this in mind, environmental groups could bring private prosecutions against fracking companies or proposed underground coal mines such as the controversial Woodhouse Colliery site in Cumbria. These fossil fuel extraction activities are, one could argue, using tunnelling that is capable of causing serious climate disruption, and the relevant companies are reckless as to whether these harmful consequences could occur.

Whether they have a reasonable excuse or not may turn on arguments about whether such new fossil fuel extraction sites are compatible with the government’s net-zero targets.

Reasonable excuses

The defence may argue that they can rely on the “deemed” reasonable excuse where the creation of the tunnel was authorised by a landowner. That provision will normally protect standard infrastructure tunnellers (for example, those building a road tunnel). But where horizontal drilling “tunnels” go under other people’s land (as can happen with fracking), it is not entirely clear that the tunnel will be so authorised.

There was a similar issue with the tort of trespass to land, with groups such as Greenpeace trying to stop fracking using a precedent where former Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed had successfully sued Star Energy for drilling under his land. The government shut down this avenue via the Infrastructure Act 2015.

The 2015 act provides that a “person has the right to use deep-level land in any way for the purposes of exploiting petroleum or deep geothermal energy” under a depth of 300 metres from the surface. This means they can’t be sued in tort for trespass.

But it doesn’t avoid the need for an authorisation from neighbouring landowners for the purposes of the public order bill. Without such an authorisation, a defendant is unlikely to be able to rely on the bill’s deemed reasonable excuse defence.

Even if these arguments end up being given short shrift in the courts, they may at least give campaigners charged with these draconian new offences an opportunity to tell a different story about the offences they have been charged with. Protest is often the canary in the coalmine. If we shut it down, some may avoid being disrupted now, but with climate change, we will surely all be disrupted much more in the future as the planet warms beyond 1.5℃.

Protest is also a safety valve. In further restricting overt protest, the bill could have the unintended consequence of driving eco-activists towards more extreme and violent forms of covert action.


Fracking moratorium – a timeline produced by DRILL OR DROP

Three years ago today, the government formally confirmed a moratorium on fracking in England.

DrillOrDrop has compiled this timeline of events that led to the introduction of the 2019 moratorium, its brief lifting and the latest U-turn.

We also look back at an earlier moratorium, introduced in 2011, also prompted by fracking in Lancashire by Cuadrilla. And we give details of moratoriums on fracking in Scotland and Wales, which have remained in force.