Lawyers acting for Five Quarter, a Newcastle-based company that wants to exploit gas in coal seams under the seabed, have threatened to sue Ayrshire mother-of-two, Mel Kelly, for “malicious falsehood”. Buccleuch has an eight per cent stake in the company, and a director on its board.
Kelly has written a 42-page report entitled “Theft Of Austerity Britain’s Coal” on what she sees as the dangers of underground coal gasification. It is very critical of Five Quarter, its directors and other companies, and has been widely circulated to politicians and the media.
On 8 May 2014 she was sent an email by the Newcastle commercial law firm, Muckle, ordering her to “cease and desist” distributing her report and accompanying emails in order to avoid costly legal action. This kind of corporate gagging has been termed as a SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
Muckle required Kelly to remove any reference to her report from any publications, and to provide contact details for all the report’s recipients. It demanded confirmation within 48 hours that these measures would be taken.
“If this confirmation is not received, our client reserves the right to issue proceedings against you seeking relief for defamation and/or malicious falsehood,” the email said. “For the avoidance of doubt our client would also be seeking to recover legal costs and interest. Such costs could be substantial.”
Kelly’s allegations were “untrue and are likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of Five Quarter”, Muckle stated. The risks she highlighted were “isolated incidences and do not involve Five Quarter”, it said.
Kelly, who lives in Irvine, North Ayrshire, and works as a business analyst and programmer, has asked Muckle for more time to respond. “I cannot believe that what I had initially thought was a spam email actually turned out to be a heavy-handed attempt to intimidate me,” she told the Sunday Herald.
“I will continue campaigning to raise awareness of underground coal gasification, which will likely prove to be just as controversial as fracking, once the public and legislators become fully aware of the many possible consequences for our health, wealth and environment.”
Dr Richard Dixon, the director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, was threatened with legal action by another underground coal company, Dart Energy, last September over tweets lampooning the company. He refused to withdraw them.
“Five Quarter’s threat to Mel Kelly is at a whole different level of nastiness,” he said. “Over-the-top legal threats to a local campaigner are nothing but bullying. They are designed to suppress people’s legitimate concerns about an industry with a history of repeated failure.”
The Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, also criticised the attempt to gag a concerned citizen. “If Five Quarter was hoping a letter from lawyers would help shut down debate about unconventional fossil fuel extraction, it was extremely naive and its plan has spectacularly backfired,” she said.
In a statement Five Quarter stressed that it had not sought or obtained a court order. “We have in the past, and will in the future, issue notices requiring people to cease and desist from publishing anything that includes defamatory, malicious or false statements,” it said.
“We do not seek and would never seek to limit any individual or organisation from having an opinion on the energy debate or publicising or agitating for that opinion in any legitimate form. In fact, we positively welcome and encourage debate.”
The company had tried to answer concerns, and had built its professional reputation on its strong environmental credentials. “We have to draw the line, however, when we and our directors are accused of acting inappropriately,” the statement added.
“Where false statements are published that may cause damage, we will take all necessary steps to protect Five Quarter and its directors.”
A Buccleuch spokesman said: “Five Quarter’s licences are for off-shore activity and Buccleuch will not be using these technologies in any of its onshore energy initiatives, particularly in the south of Scotland.”
The Sunday Herald reported in June 2013 that Buccleuch was working in partnership with other companies to dig an opencast coal mine and exploit underground coalbed methane in the Canonbie area.
A copy of the letter sent to Mel Kelly by Muckle on behalf of Five Quarter can be downloaded here (183KB pdf).