Industry

“David and Goliath battle” as residents take on oil company in the Surrey Hills

A nature conservationist described the campaign against oil drilling near Leith Hill in Surrey as a David and Goliath battle.

William Travers, the son of Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, was giving evidence this morning at the public inquiry into plans by Europa Oil and Gas to drill an exploratory oil well.

A local resident, he described how people who were most likely to be affected by the plans, had taken on the role of defenders.

“Their views have been ignored by the developers and those elected to represent them”, he said.  “This is a David and Goliath battle, observed by the rest. It is the weak taking on the mighty”.

Mr Travers, who chairs the wildlife organisation, the Born Free Foundation, said the community’s ability to defend the area would decline as it ran out of money more quickly than the oil company.

The inquiry is the latest stage of a seven-year planning dispute between Europa and local residents and Surrey County Council. (See Timeline at bottom of this post). The company wants to drill at Bury Hill Wood near Coldharbour in the Surrey Hills Area of OUtstanding Natural Beauty.

Mr Travers criticised the level of protection that he felt should be given to the area by the AONB. He said the AONB appeared to be irrelevant. “The designation is not worth the paper it is written on”, he said.

He also criticised Europa’s survey of the area’s ecology. It had, he said, missed 10 out of 12 threatened bird species found near the site, as well as dormouse.

The plans risked damaging these species, he said.

“Who would be held accountable? “Who will have failed in their duty of care? We know in our hearts that is no one”.

If the proposal had been submitted in a national park in Africa, it would fail, he said. “Civil society would object in the strongest possible terms. How is it that here, in our back yard, we are prepared to accept something that many people feel is unacceptable?”

The development would degrade or destroy the environment and natural beauty of the area, he said. “There is a price to pay and sometimes that price is simply too high.”

“Just because we can, does not mean that we should.”

Financial weakness

Another resident questioned whether Europa would be able to pay for any damage if the development went ahead.

John Roberts, a former financial analyst and fund manager, said he had reviewed Europa’s financial statements from 2008-2014.

“Europa is a tiny, penny-share company”, he said. Shares were listed at 7p and Europa had a market value of £14m, while peer oil and gas companies had a value of about £41m.

Mr Roberts said Europa had lost money in five of the past seven years, equivalent to its market value. He also said its net assets were close to zero.

He added that Europa had three main interests: onshore drilling in the UK and France and offshore drilling in Ireland. Statements by the company chair and chief executive described operations in Ireland and France as “company-making”.

“If both the chair and CEO do not regard Leith Hill as a company-maker for this penny share company, how can this proposal be in the national interest?”, he asked.

Human rights challenge

John Simpson, who lives ¾ mile from the proposed site, described how he drove six or eight times a day along Coldharbour Lane, the route that would be used by heavy goods vehicles delivering to the site.

If the plan went ahead, he said his house would be within a traffic-light controlled area of road. He said Europa had told him he would have to phone for permission to leave his home and use the road.

“This would have a serious impact on my human rights. I would be imprisoned in my property”, he said.

Mr Simpson said if the rig were delivered along Coldharbour Lane, there would be just millimetres of tolerance on some of the corners and irreversible damage could be done to the ancient banks on either side of the road. The road was signed as unsuitable for heavy goods vehicles, he said.

The counsel for Europa, Andrew Newcombe, said: “I am instructed that there is no proposal that you will have to ring before leaving your property.” He said Surrey County Council had agreed traffic to the site would not cause irreversible damage to the banks on Coldharbour Lane, provided it followed the traffic management plan.

Opening statements

This morning, the inquiry also heard opening statements from Europa, Surrey County Council and Leith Hill Action Group.

Mr Newcombe, for the company, said there was a need for oil and gas. He said the Infrastructure Act, which became law in February, made it an objective of government to maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum. He said the development would also be in the national interest in the tax revenue it could generate.

“We need to explore and exploit all oil and gas in the public interest”, he said.

He said the proposal was not a major development and so there did not need, in planning rules, to be exceptional circumstances to allow it to go ahead in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It was also an appropriate development for the green belt.

He said Europa would seal the well after exploration and would not use it for future production. The site would be temporary, and any impacts totally reversible. He said there were no suitable alternative sites.

“This is the first stage in unlocking resources in the public interest.”

Stephen  Whale, for Leith Hill Action Group, said the development was inappropriate in an area of  Green Belt and would harm the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The well was unlikely to encounter any hydrocarbons – and if it did, the amount would be insignificant. He said there were no special circumstances that justified the well.

He said there was no technical reason why the well could not be drilled from outside the AONB. The impact of the plans on the local economy would be negative and he drew attention to errors in Europa’s environmental statement.

Robert Walton, for Surrey County Council, said all sides accepted the development would be harm to the AONB. He told the inspector, Stuart Nixon:

“This is a matter of balance. It will be a matter for you to weigh these competing policy objectives of facilitating the exploitation of hydrocarbons and preventing harm to the AONB.”

The inquiry also heard from Jan Hookey, of the Environment Agency, who said ground water monitoring would be required at the site before work could begin. This was to establish a baseline for the quality of water before it was disturbed. She was questioned by local people about the work involved in drilling boreholes and the impact this would have on the scale of the project.

Future witnesses

The inquiry at Dorking Halls is expected to last until 1st May. It is expected to hear evidence from more than 20 witnesses.This afternoon, the inquiry is epxected to hear from a landscape architect for Surrey County Council.

Timeline

2008 Europa applied for permission for exploration at Burry Hill Wood, nr Leith Hill

2011 Surrey County Council refused the application. Europa appealed against the decision

2012 Planning inspector dismissed an appeal against refusal by Europa Oil and Gas

2013 Europa successfully challenged the inspector’s decision in the High Court and the inquiry’s decision was quashed

2014 Leith Hill Action Group appealed in the High Court against the judge’s decision but the case was dismissed. The case was sent back to the Planning Inspectorate for redetermination.

2015 Europa submitted a new application for an underground corridor, allowing it to drill a horizontal well from Bury Hill Wood

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