Drilling in the SE – the state of play

Celtique Energie’s chief executive Geoff Davies said last week it appeared that oil and gas operators were being “deliberately prevented from exploring in south east England”.

He was responding to the refusal of his company’s planning application to drill an exploratory oil well at Fernhurst in the South Downs National Park. This followed another refusal of Celtique’s plans to drill between Kirdford and Wisborough Green, in West Sussex.

So is there any evidence that drillers are being pushed out of south east England? Are their options more limited after last week’s refusal? In this article, we look at recent planning applications and licensing decisions. And look at what impact the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty may have on opportunities to drill in the south east.

Recent planning decisions: 2 refusals, 3 approvals, 3 withdrawals
Refusal: Fernhurst 11th September 2014
The South Downs National Park Authority refused planning permission for Celtique Energie’s well at Fernhurst because it said the company had failed to demonstrate that there were exceptional circumstances to justify the development or prove that the application was in the national interest. The committee was following paragraph 116 of the National Planning Policy Framework, which says permission for major developments in National Parks should be refused except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.

Diana Kershaw, a member of the South Downs National Park Authority, asked at the meeting where the decision was made: “Why on earth did they bid [for a licence] in an area that is a National Park?” The company, she said “could not have picked a worse place for their drilling location”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said:  “It’s important that local communities make the decision – and they have. It doesn’t impact the broader Government position.”

But Ken Cronin, the chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), told the Midhurst and Petworth Observer “In light of the overwhelming need [for oil and gas] and the strict regulatory regime the decision today is regrettable.”

Refusal: Kirdford and Wisborough Green 22nd July 2014
West Sussex County Council refused planning permission for an oil exploration site near Boxall Bridge between Wisborough Green and Kirdford on road safety grounds. The council’s planning committee also said the application would harm the character of Wisborough Green village and conservation area and the proposed site was not the best possible option.

The local county councillor for both villagers, Janet Duncton, said: “I would not want to put my name to ruining these beautiful villages. This is the wrong place. There is nothing more to say about it.” Joseph Ransley, of Kirdford Parish Council, said: “The oil industry is its own worst enemy by seeking to pursue development in wholly inappropriate locations”. Celtique Energie said the council had not followed the “spirit or letter of government policy or good practice” and it was considering its options. The company must lodge an appeal by October 22nd 2014.

Approval but subject to challenge: Balcombe 29th April 2014
West Sussex County Council approved Cuadrilla’s application to test the viability of its exploratory oil well at Lower Stumble, Balcombe. The council’s planning committee said the application did not pose a risk to air or ground water and that other impacts were acceptable. Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association successfully applied for a judicial review of the decision, which will be heard in the High Court in London on November 6-7th this year.

Withdrawal: East Kent, November 2013
In November 2013, Kent County Council confirmed that Coastal Oil and Gas had withdrawn three planning applications to explore for coal bed methane in villages in east Kent.

Approval: Broadford Bridge, Billinghshurst, 11th February 2013
West Sussex County Council’s planning committee granted permission to Celtique Energie for an exploratory borehole at Wood Barn Farm. The approval carried just two conditions: the development must start within three years of the permission date and work must be completed within three years of the start date. The council granted further permission this month for cabins, gates and security fencing at the site. Celtique Energie confirmed that work began today (September 15th 2014). More details

Approval: Horse Hill, near Horley, 9th November 2011
Surrey County Council approved permission to Magellan to drill an exploratory well 2km from Horley. The council imposed conditions on issues such as hours of work, access, noise, lighting, contamination, restoration. Magellan confirmed that drilling began on September 3rd 2014. More details

PEDL Licences
Multiple new licences
The Department of Energy and Climate and Change has offered new Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences across most of southern England under the 14th round. The area under offer stretches from Kent to Dorset and from the Hampshire cost to the edge of London.

Licence extensions
DECC has extended PEDLs which had reached the end of the first term for at least two companies in south east England.

In June, DECC confirmed Cuadrilla had been given an extension of two years, from 2014 to 2016, for PEDL 244, which includes Balcombe. Celtique Energie’s website says it has received extensions for PEDL 231, 234 and 243, from June 2014-2016.

Surrendered licences
11 companies have surrendered licence areas in the south of England, according to the most recent map published by DECC. These include:

Celtique Energie: PEDL 232
Coastal: PEDLs 241, 249, 250, 252
Cuadrilla: PEDL 247 and PL055
Fairfax: PEDL 225 and 236
Northern: all of PEDL 155, 240 and 256 and part of PEDL 126
UK Methane: PEDL 226 and 228

These licence areas are expected to be re-offered to drilling  companies in the 14th round

National Parks and designated areas
The refusal of Celtique Energie’s Fernhurst application in the South Downs National Park, raised questions about whether oil and gas companies would be excluded from National Parks in future.

The chair of the South Downs National Park Authority, Margaret Paren, said: “The message has gone out that robust evidence is vital to jump the very high hurdles set out in national planning policy.”

She was referring, at least in part, to new guidance from the government, issued in July, which reaffirmed paragraph 116 of the NPPF: that major developments should be refused in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, except in exceptional circumstances. The government did not, however, define exceptional circumstances.

The MP Anne McIntosh, whose constituency is in the North York Moors, tried to get a definition in  parliamentary question last week. She asked the planning minister, Brandon Lewis: “Will my Hon. Friend say what those exceptional circumstances will be, and that the precautionary principle will normally prevail for fracking?” Mr Lewis added no new information in his reply. He said: “Any planning application must be decided on its own merits. That means that things will change from application to application, based on the merits of each individual case.”

If drilling companies were excluded from National Parks and AONBs are there many opportunities left in the south? The Telegraph’s Emily Gosden tweeted last week “If you exclude Nat Parks & AONB you’re basically left with fracking Gatwick”.

The area is not as limited as that. Celtique Energie, for example, has three Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences in south east England.

Celtique Energie's PEDL areas

Celtique Energie’s PEDL areas

Celtique’s website says the PEDLs cover about 1,000 sq km across the central weald basin, from Liphook and Petersfield in the west to Copthorne, Horsham and West Grinstead in the east. But as the map shows below the National Parks and AONBs do cover large parts of the region.

National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Map key
13 SouthDowns National Park
14 New Forest National Park
38 North Wessex Downs AONB
39 Surrey Hills AONB
40 Kent Downs AONB
51 Isle of Wight AONB
52 Chichester Harbour AONB
53 High Weald AONB

Ken Cronin, of UKOOG, said last week many of the 2,000 oil and gas wells drilled onshore in the UK to date had been in AONB or national parks. “We have worked closely with local authorities and communities to be sensitive to the environment to the extent that our operations pass largely unnoticed”.

This won’t reassure many people in Fernhurst. Despite the relief at last week’s decision and Celtique Energie’s statement, there’s suspicion that the company will keep looking for sites locally. Actor Sarah Miles, who was at the planning committee meeting, said “One thing’s for sure. They’ll be back”.

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