Inquiry into Europa’s Surrey Hills drilling plan hears final arguments

Supporters and opponents of a scheme to drill for oil in the Surrey Hills had their last chance today to persuade a planning inspector of their arguments.

A public inquiry in Dorking heard the final statements from Europa Oil in favour of its plan to sink an exploratory borehole at Bury Hill Wood, near Leith Hill, in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Surrey County Council and the Leith Hill Action Group, which oppose the scheme, urged the inspector to refuse planning permission.

This was the latest stage in a dispute dating back to 2008. Europa appealed against the refusal of planning permission in 2011 and since then there have been two public inquiries and two court cases.

The current inquiry had heard seven days of evidence from landscape architects, planning consultants, the Environment Agency and hydrogeologists. People living near the proposed site in Knoll Road and Coldharbour Lane, also told the inspector about the noise and traffic problems they expected to face if the proposal were approved.

Key arguments

In his closing statement, Stephen Whale, for Leith Hill Action Group, said the proposed exploratory oil well was inappropriate development in the Green Belt and would harm the Surrey Hills AONB. It was unlikely to find hydrocarbons, he said, and any oil that it might encounter would be nationally insignificant.

Robert Walton, for Surrey County Council, said the application conflicted with development plans for the area. It would have a detrimental effect on the landscape and significantly adverse impacts on the AONB. People living nearby would also be affected. If oil were found it would represent only a very small percentage of the UK’s onshore reserves and make a negligible contribution towards meeting UK demand.

Andrew Newcombe, for Europa Oil, said there was a national need for hydrocarbons and the scheme complied with government policy to achieve full recovery of UK oil and gas. The site would generate tax revenue at a time when this was also needed. Any impacts on the landscape or residents would be insignificant, temporary and reversible.

Harm versus need

Mr Newcombe said: “The country needs this type of development, and urgently, including in terms of long-term energy security.”

He said if the well found oil, it could represent 11% of UK onshore reserves. The chances of finding oil were good by industry standards, he said.

“The government can expect a significant sum in tax revenue… At a time when the government is in dire need of tax revenue that potential contribution is ample demonstration that the exploitation of any oil and gas in this prospect is of public and national interest.”

“The proposed development is temporary, its effects wholly reversible and yet it comprises the first stage in unlocking a resource, the exploitation of which is in the national and public interest.”

But Surrey County Council’s Robert Walton said the scheme’s heavily industrialised appearance would do significant environmental harm. Lorry journeys to the site would harm the residents living along their route in Knoll Road and Coldharbour Lane.

“The council’s position is that on the facts of this case such need is outweighed by the harm the exploration would cause.”

“Europa had failed to demonstrate that the scheme was in the public interest and there were not exceptional circumstances to justify planning permission.”

Stephen Whale, for LHAG, said there was no evidence that the proposed well was likely to hit two formations it was targeting.

“Even if the appeal is allowed and if the drilling takes place and if the targets are hit and if hydrocarbons are encountered and if the resource is 5.6m barrels, the likelihood is that the well will be sealed and even if planning permission for production is sought and even if it is granted the production is unlikely to take place at this site (no production site having yet been identified) and the government tax revenue from the appeal development, much vaunted by the appellant, will therefore as a result be precisely and exactly nil”.

Planning policy

Mr Whale said according to national planning policy “great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in AONBs, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty”.

Mr Walton said it was “fanciful” for Europa’s consultants to argue that the scheme would not breach any landscape protection policy”.

He said it conflicted with policies in the Mole Valley Local Plan (2000), Mole Valley Core Strategy 2009. Surrey Minerals Plan Core Strategy 2011.

Mr Walton said the application represented a “major development” in planning terms. According to national planning policy, major developments should be allowed in AONBs only in exceptional circumstances and only when they were in the public interest.

But Mr Newcombe denied the scheme was a major development. “What is here proposed is to be presumed to be sustainable in principle”, he said.

Even if it were a major development, he said, the need for energy security, the lack of alternative sites and the temporary, reversible impacts represented exceptional circumstances that justified permission.

Mr Newcombe said Europa had a licence from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to explore for oil and gas in the area. “It would be passing strange … were a different manifestation of government now to refuse to allow that licence to be acted upon.”

The inspector, Stuart Nixon, will now decide whether to allow the appeal or refuse planning permission. At the end of the inquiry he would not say when a decision was likely.

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