An environmental activist has been jailed for 112 days after he “flouted” a High Court injunction aimed at preventing disruption to work on a 105km-long aviation fuel pipeline.
Scott Breen dug and occupied a 6-8ft pit and constructed a “rickety wooden shed” next to the M25 at Chertsey in Surrey as part of a protest against the operations of oil company Esso on the Southampton to London Pipeline project (SLPP).
The 48-year-old, whose is nicknamed “Digger”, admitted breaching the court order and was jailed by a High Court judge following a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) on Tuesday.
The protester, dubbed by Esso’s lawyers as a “known tunneller”, was previously among the group of campaigners who occupied a network of tunnels under a small park next to Euston station in central London in January last year as part of a protest against the HS2 railway line.
Esso Petroleum Company Limited, owned by ExxonMobil, was granted an interim injunction against Mr Breen and “persons unknown” at a hearing last month, which included a requirement that Breen leave his pit within 72 hours of service of the order on him.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Mr Justice Ritchie said Breen had been “arrogant, dismissive” and “sought to cause chaos” by failing to engage in the process of enforcing the injunction.
“The defendant’s approach to the court order was to flout it continuously,” the judge said, adding that Breen sought to “publicise” his breach on social media.
Breen was led away in handcuffs from Court 14 of the RCJ after shaking hands and hugging supporters who burst into a round of applause.
The SLPP, which received development consent in October 2020, aims to replace 90km of pipe between Boorley Green in Hampshire and Esso’s west London terminal storage facility in Hounslow, near Heathrow Airport.
Replacing the pipeline originally constructed in 1972, it will help keep 100 tankers a day off the road, Esso claims, and is due for completion next year.
The project has been targeted by protesters interfering with equipment and “attacking” it with angle grinders, the High Court was previously told.
Timothy Morshead QC, representing Esso on Tuesday, told the judge that “nothing less than immediate custodial sentence will meet the mischief in this case”, adding that “anything less than that is going to be presented as a victory”.
Breen’s barrister, Annabel Timan, said the activist apologised, “fully accepts that he was in breach” and would “undertake not to engage in any further incursions on the land”.
“Mr Breen’s motivation has always been to draw attention to climate change,” she said, adding: “We are in a climate crisis.”
Ms Timan, who argued that the activist could receive a suspended sentence, said of his actions: “There was no danger to the public, the danger was very much to Mr Breen.”
Mr Justice Ritchie said the SLPP was a “strategic construction of national importance for businesses, members of the public and for the gross domestic product of the United Kingdom”.
The judge noted: “There is nothing wrong with protesting and it’s the right of citizens of England and Wales to do so, but they must do so within the law.”
He said that after digging his pit, and being ordered to leave, Breen made a “jerry built and dangerous” wooden structure out of pallets “so that police were unlikely to arrest him”.
The judge said he was not given specific figures of the loss to Esso caused by Breen’s actions, but said the “prejudice” to the company was “likely to be in the tens of thousands of pounds and possibly in the hundreds of thousands of pounds”.
Breen’s witness statement showed “very little insight into the effect of your actions”, the judge said, with this including “the waste of money that you caused to the emergency services, the police and the court service”.
Mr Justice Ritchie said he would not suspend Breen’s sentence, telling him: “I consider that you think you are not bound by the law.”
The judge added that the protester continues to be a “danger” to Esso and other petrochemical companies at a time when the country may have “wholly inadequate supplies” for heating places such as schools and hospitals.
Breen was also ordered to pay a £1,500 fine.