Dorset County Council and InfraStrata have confirmed that no work will be carried out this year at a proposed gas exploration site near the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site in Dorset.
The site, at California Quarry on the edge of Swanage, was occupied by opponents of drilling at the weekend. Campaigners against the development are also challenging the way that planning permission for the scheme was granted in 2013.
A spokesperson for Dorset County Council told DrillOrDrop this afternoon:
“We were notified yesterday by InfraStrata that no work is going to be carried out at the site this year.”
According to opponents of the proposal, InfraStrata was scheduled to install fencing before the end of September, followed by earthworks a couple of weeks later.
But a spokesperson for the company described this as “old information”. He said:
“The fencing will no longer be taking place. There will be no fencing, any earthworks or anything planned this winter. There will be no activity taking place”.
Stuart Lane, a campaigner against the site and local Green Party co-ordinator, said this afternoon:
“Messages from InfraStrata about their intentions to carry out work on site have flip-flopped considerably. We have had no written response from Dorset County Council since our request for urgent information sent Friday 23rd September.”
The project now appears to be in limbo for a number of reasons.
A condition of the planning permission required work to start by 3 December 2016 or the consent would expire.
The council’s spokesperson said today: “If the company wanted to continue [at California Quarry] they would need to reapply for planning permission”.
Campaigner Stuart Lane said
“We look forward to any formal statement by Dorset County Council that the site will be left unspoilt and that the planning permission to drill will be left to lapse on the 3rd December 2016.”
InfraStrata had proposed to drill an exploratory borehole from the site to a depth of 2,000m out to sea. The planning permission also allowed for production tests. The nearest home is 270m away and a camping field is 100m from the site boundary.
Opponents have designated the site as their home under Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 and have said there will be a presence at the camp 24-hours a day.
Mr Lane said:
“It is quite a small site. More people are expected. But I would expect it to grow modestly. We want to ensure that the ecology of the site is not threatened.”
Mr Lane described the site as “particularly sensitive ecologically”. He said: “It could not be more protected”.
As well as being 500m from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, it is in the Dorset Coast Area of Natural Beauty and 110m from the South Dorset Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest and the St Albans Head to Durlston Head Special Area of Conservation. The drilling site itself is part of a Site of Nature Conservation Interest.
When the original application was discussed, Dorset’s senior landscape officer had “serious concerns” that the 50m rig would have adverse impacts on the landscape. But he found it hard to defend an objection because the application was temporary.
An ecological assessment carried out in 2013 for InfraStrata concluded that the site had “negligible potential” to support protected species, such as bats, great crested newts and reptiles.
But this year, an independent ecological assessment for Stop the Swanage Gas Rig Campaign came to very different conclusions. It said:
“The proposed development is likely to have an impact on several protected species including bats, reptiles and Great Crested Newts and the habitats on site and in the wider area.”
The report by Darwin Ecology recommended there should be new surveys for plants, protected species, breeding birds and insects.
Dorset County Council confirmed that new surveys would be carried out. Its spokesperson said:
“Our ecologist is working with Natural England, and further assessments will be carried out with regards to wildlife as the three-year assessment carried out when application from Infra Strata was submitted has lapsed.”
Surveys for Great Crested Newts should be carried out in the spring. It now appears that survey work will not be carried out until after planning permission has expired.
Opponents have also raised questions about the original ecological surveys and why Dorset County Council did not require an environmental impact assessment for the 2013 planning application.
Dorset’s highways authority did not object to the planning application for drilling in 2013 even though the recommended route to California Quarry took heavy goods vehicles along Panorama Road, which has steep sections and tight bends.
A road safety risk assessment commissioned by Swanage Town Council in 2014 concluded that the layout of part of Panorama Road was not suitable for two-way simultaneous HGV traffic.
The author, David A Graham Associates Ltd, recommended that HGVs with automatic gearboxes should not be allowed to make deliveries to the site and that haulage operations should be restricted to the summer months.
Part of the access road is owned by Swanage Town Council and for this reason, the town council did not take part in the consultation on the 2013 planning application.
The company announced on Monday that it was pulling out of oil and gas exploration. This is the latest development in a change of direction for InfraStrata, which is now concentrating on gas storage in Northern Ireland.
In November last year, it transferring its entire UK interests in three offshore licences to its partner Corallian Energy Limited, including the one that covers California Quarry.
However, the company confirmed today that it remained the licence administrator until the Oil and Gas Authority could find a replacement.
InfraStrata made headlines in June this year when it abandoned an oil exploration site at Woodburn Forest, Carrickfergus after finding no oil. In January 2016, CompanyWatch gave InfraStrata a score of 1 out of a maximum 100 for financial health (the lowest possible possible score is zero). Details
World Heritage Site
California Quarry is 500m from the Jurassic Coast cliff face, which is designated as a World Heritage Site. When InfraStrata applied for planning permission, there was no objection from the local World Heritage Site office.
Since then, the Navitus Bay offshore wind farm, proposed for 12 miles off the Dorset Coast, was refused permission. This was partly because of its effect on the setting of the World Heritage Site.
In 2013, the World Heritage Committee adopted a decision on mining and drilling. It urged signatory countries not to permit extractive industries within World Heritage Sites and not to permit extractive companies outside the boundaries to cause damage.
Updated 29/9/2016 to correct spelling of Navitus Bay