Drilling has halted at an exploratory site in Sussex as protesters threaten to take direct action to stop the search for oil and gas.

Energy company Cuadrilla said the drilling has been “scaled back” on the advice of Sussex Police for the safety of its workers and protesters who are due to descend on land near the site today.

The Reclaim the Power action camp run by No Dash for Gas will see up to 1,000 people in Balcombe until Wednesday.

The climate camp, which includes a programme of talks about campaigning, cuts and energy and has issued a seven-page press pack, has been relocated from Nottinghamshire, where it was due to take place.

A spokesman for the energy company said yesterday: “This weekend we are going to scale back operations because of the threat of direct action.

“The main concern is the safety of our employees on site, the people of Balcombe and the protesters themselves.

“We will stop the drill at a certain point and make it safe.

“As soon as it is safe to do so, we will resume operations.

‘Plan for the worst’

“We have got to plan for the worst and we have got to be prepared.”

Heras fencing, which has secured the site since drilling started two weeks ago, has been taken down and replaced with fortified metal fencing twice the height and topped with barbed wire.

Sussex Police Superintendent Lawrence Hobbs said: “Aware of the potential scale of the protest at Balcombe over the next few days, Sussex Police and Cuadrilla have discussed how best to minimise the risk posed by this busy industrial site.

“We support their decision with regard to their operation.”

Sussex Police has warned newcomers to the site – which has become a national focal point for anti-fracking activists – that they face arrest if they break the law.

Chairman of Balcombe Parish Council, Alison Sótevenson, has urged people planning to break the law to stay away.

Supt Hobbs added: “We are acutely aware of the impact this is having on the residents of Balcombe and back their call to protesters not to engage in any criminal activity in the pursuit of their aims.

“Indeed, our engagement with Balcombe people who are protesting at the site and the vast majority of those who have travelled from further afield has been mutually
rewarding and we have been able to facilitate their right to assemble and protest.

“We will continue to facilitate peaceful protest, but newcomers to the site should be aware that if they commit criminal offences then we will collect the evidence and they will be arrested.”

About 40 people have been arrested since the protests sprang up on the outskirts of the West Sussex village three weeks ago.

A 3,000ft deep well, about 13.5in in diameter, is being drilled on the site, with rock samples being taken for analysis. There are also plans to drill horizontally.

There is no permission to carry out hydraulic fracturing or fracking on the site – a process in which high pressure liquid is pumped deep underground to split shale rock and release gas supplies, which opponents argue could potentially cause water contamination, small-scale earthquakes and environmental damage.

Cuadrilla announced this week it is “unlikely” to turn the area into a fossil fuel production site.

But opponents fear it is the intention of Cuadrilla bosses, who have previously used the process in the UK to harness the energy.

Friends of the Earth claimed that Cuadrilla's “rhetoric is shifting fast in the face of overwhelming opposition”.


Who the protesters will be

The Reclaim the Power camp was due to be held at West Burton power station in Nottinghamshire which last year led to it being shut down and 21 people being arrested.

But organisers switched this year's camp to Balcombe, with No Dash for Gas saying it will attract a coalition of climate, anti-austerity and fuel poverty activists.

No Dash for Gas said: “There are two stories that could emerge from Balcombe this summer.

“It could be the place that paved the way for a dirty and dangerous method of fuel extraction to tear up the country, or it could be the place where a group of ordinary people inspired the world by taking back the power.

“We are here, together with dedicated people from Balcombe, to make sure that it's the latter.”


Inside the most controversial drilling site in the UK

Yesterday a mini bus carrying 10 journalists was driven through the luscious Sussex countryside to the drilling site to see firsthand the machinery which is causing controversy.

After a surprisingly uninterrupted drive along the road lined with tents on either side, a pause outside the gated entrance to the site attracted the interest of those who have set up a temporary home nearby.

Some took pictures through the windows of the suited strangers, while others stuck their heads through the driver's open window to ask who the passengers were.

“We'll put our faith in you guys,” one shouted as the gates opened and the mini bus disappeared up the dusty road inside.

The “very simple well with conventional engineering” has attracted unprecedented levels of attention, to the surprise of the up to 30 workers onsite.

There are offices, toilets and showers, a canteen and accommodation for the three people who stay on site over night which around the sit on the outside of the about the size of a football pitch.

In the centre water tanks, mud processers and machinery sit on an impermeable membrane, used to comply with an environmental permit and designed to stop anything - accidental spillages, for example - making its way into the ground.

With the buzzing backdrop of engines, one Cuadrilla employee said: “All we're doing is drilling a 13 inch hole in the ground and getting rock samples. That's it.

“What people decide to do with that data is another issue.”


Worker intimidation

Workers on the site yesterday revealed the daily “intimidation” from fracking opponents lining the verges on the road outside the drilling site.

One man said: “Staff are verbally abused on a daily basis.

“People are right up in your face, taking pictures of you, it's not very pleasant at all.

“People have camped in fields nearby and have been shouting down to staff with megaphones, saying how bad the industry is, how we're going to kill everybody.

“I have never seen anything like this before, ever.”