EDF has dropped a £5 million law suit against a group of climate change protesters, following sustained pressure from the public and high profile campaigners.
The legal case, brought against members of the No Dash For Gas campaign group following a week-long sit in West Burton, had been described by commentators as 'a disgraceful attempt to close down peaceful protest' and 'vindictive bullying', while anti-cuts group UK Uncut and Greenpeace warned that it could change the face of protest in Britain.
No Dash For Gas claims hundreds of EDF customers left the company in disgust at its actions, and another 64,000 people signed an online petition posted by one of the activists' parents.
High profile supporters of the campaigners included Richard Dawkins, Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.
One of the protestors during the week-long sit in at the West Burton plant
"After three weeks of campaigning and a public outcry, EDF's lawyers approached the campaigners offering to withdraw the lawsuit before formally surrendering," a statement from the protest group said.
One of the No Dash for Gas activists, Hannah Davey, a 35 year-old graphic designer, expressed relief that the lawsuit has been dropped.
"For all their power, for all their access and all their wealth, EDF's bullying lawsuit has bitten the dust because people power fought back. They thought they were taking on 21 of us, but they soon faced a movement that stood with us against an energy giant and its lawyers," she said.
"This shows how powerful we are if we all stand together, if we organise and mobilise, if we refuse to back down in the face of the climate crisis. Only a few of us went up that chimney, but 64,000 people came down."
The protestors set up abseiling ropes to manouevre between the chimneys during their takeover of the West Burton plant
Davey added that while EDF's climbdown was a "huge victory", the success was tinged by the sadness she felt from the fact that "millions of people won't be safe from fuel poverty and the effects of climate change if the government and the energy companies' reckless gas expansion plans are allowed to go ahead".
"We need to stop the dash for gas before it crashes our carbon targets and makes the UK dependent on an expensive, imported and highly-polluting fuel for decades to come," she said.
Another campaigner, Danielle Paffard, added: "EDF has sustained an unmitigated defeat. Our campaign to expose the lie behind the new dash for gas will continue, with a growing movement and new allies. Offshore wind power is on track to be cheaper than gas by the end of this decade. Along with other renewables and energy efficiency, we can keep the lights on, slash pollution and bring down bills, but not with George Osborne’s forty new gas plants."
EDF issued a statement on Wednesday saying it had agreed to drop the claim on the proviso that the members of No Dash For Gas accepted a permanent injunction which prevents them from entering multiple sites operated by EDF Energy.
"Our aim was always to protect a vital infrastructure project - which forms part of a massive investment in the UK's energy supply - from dangerous and costly disruption. We have held discussions with a wide range of stakeholders and listened carefully to the debate around this issue, including conversations on social media," the statement said.
"EDF Energy respects people's right to hold differing viewpoints and to protest lawfully. Campaigners have staged peaceful and lawful protests outside some of our power station sites for many years. However, the group of protestors who broke into our West Burton site last year put their lives at risk and forced hundreds of workers off site.
"The protestors are right to highlight that the challenge of keeping the lights on in Britain represents one of the most important issues facing the country. We will continue to engage with a wide range of stakeholders and individuals to explain our role in meeting the country's future energy needs."
EDF Energy then pledged to invite relevant representatives of civil society – including environmental campaigners - to discuss how the company can best address these issues and develop protocols which will guide its response to such demonstrations in future.
The discussion will be led by Will Hutton, who is the former editor of the Observer newspaper, a principal of Hertford College, Oxford and is chair of the Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation, as well as chair of EDF Energy's Stakeholder Advisory Panel.
An advisory report will be presented to an independent panel and the findings published in due course.
EDF was also keen to point out it had committed to reducing the intensity of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from its electricity production by 60% by 2020, and to cutting the proportion of CO2 arising from its customers' energy consumption by 15% by 2020.
The original law suit was for £5m worth of damages, which EDF claimed had been caused during the week-long protest last October.
Twenty-one No Dash for Gas activists shut down EDF's newly-constructed West Burton gas-fired power station, with 16 of them scaling the smokestacks before abseiling into the flues and living inside them, preventing the scheduled opening the following day of a new chimney, and stopping 20,000 tonnes of CO2 over the course of their seven day occupation.
The campaigners are already facing possible jail terms - they are due in court to be sentenced for aggravated trespass over the next few weeks. The additional £5m civil lawsuit could have resulted in some of them losing their homes, while all of the campaigners would have been forced to pay a percentage of their earnings to EDF until a personal debt of £238,000 each was paid off, or until they were declared bankrupt.
Despite dropping the charges, EDF have reportedly insisted on a restrictive injunction preventing the 21 activists from entering EDF power stations in the future.