24th June 2014
County councillors who went on an information visit to an oil field weren’t told about two pollution incidents which took four years to fix, according to details released today (24/6/14) under the Freedom of Information Act.
The visit to the Singleton oil field was organised by West Sussex County Council for members of its planning committee. It took place on April 1st this year, four weeks before the committee discussed an application by Cuadrilla to flow test its well at Lower Stumble, in Balcombe.
A request to West Sussex County Council for details about the visit was submitted by Balcombe resident, Sue Taylor. She asked specifically whether councillors were told about pollution incidents at the oil field, in which crude oil leaked from two wells.
The County Council responded: “No – it was not the purpose of the visit to deal with specific incidents of this kind”.
The pollution happened at Singleton in the 1990s but was reported in March this year in the most comprehensive review of Britain’s onshore oil and gas wells. ReFINE (Researching Fracking in Europe), an independent research consortium at Durham University, found that between 2000 and 2013, there were nine recorded pollution incidents involving the release of crude oil within 1km of an oil or gas well. Two were caused by well integrity failure at Singleton oil field, where the cement casing of the well had been breached.
The ReFINE review was published in Marine and Petroleum Geology but reported more widely, including by the BBC.
Sue Taylor said: “I don’t believe that West Sussex County Council concealed this information. I don’t think they knew about it.” She said a similar pollution incident at Balcombe would be “catastrophic”. “It would have polluted the aquifer and the [Ardingly] reservoir.”
The information visit was organised by the county council’s planning and democratic services departments, according to the FOI response. Eight of the 13 regular committee members and one substitute member went on the visit.
When asked about the purpose of the visit, the County Council said it was to “familiarise councillors with an operational oil site, and give them an opportunity to ask operators questions about the daily operation of the site.”
The council added: “It was therefore a development session for members without any specific connection to a current or expected application.” However, the substitute member, Cllr Jeremy Hunt, was co-opted onto the planning committee meeting, held on April 29th, which approved Cuadrilla’s application.
Sue Taylor said: “Such a visit on the 1 April just before the meeting on the 29 April to decide on Balcombe was bound to influence the councillors. Sadly because the councillors were not informed about the pollution incident, they would have been falsely assured about the safety of onshore wells.”
She added that the Singleton site was “ideally designed to reassure councillors because it is in a remote area with no habitation nearby and buried deep in a forest. I hope the serious pollution incidents at Singleton are now brought to the attention of the councillors so that they have all the facts in front of them when deciding about other application for oil and gas wells in West Sussex.”
On July 22nd, the planning committee is due to decide on an application by Celtique Energie for an exploratory drilling site between Wisborough Green and Kirdford.
Click here to see the full West Sussex County Council response to the FOI request
Click here for the ReFINE study on well integrity failure