West Sussex has a last chance next month to strengthen controls on the use of acid in oil and gas operations.
Policies that will help decide hydrocarbon planning applications for the next 15 years go out for their final public consultation from 16 January 2017 for eight weeks.
A key issue is likely to be whether the minerals local plan for West Sussex and the South Downs National Park should have a specific policy on a technique known as acidisation.
The latest version of the plan has one policy (M7b) which deals with hydraulic fracturing. This prevents the process in the national park and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the most vulnerable water source zones.
Another policy (M7a) allows oil and gas exploration without hydraulic fracturing in the national park and AONBs only in exceptional circumstances and in the public interest.
Neither policy mentions the use of acid, which has recently become a controversial issue in the region. The exploration company, UK Oil & Gas Investments Plc, has included the possible use of acidisation in a planning application for Markwells Wood oil site, near Stoughton, in the national park.
The industry says acid has been used routinely to clean wells or improve flow rates for almost 120 years.
But some campaign and residents’ groups say they are concerned about the lack of evidence about its long-term and cumulative effects.
Acidisation is one of several techniques to release oil and gas trapped within rocks that is unable to flow at commercial rates unless stimulated.
The campaigner, Kathryn McWhirter, has compiled a briefing document which says these techniques range from acid washing – cleaning the well at low pressure to remove debris – to acid fracking, which is a major operation, done at pressure, above the fracture point of rock.
Calls for redrafting
A handful of members of West Sussex County Council and the national park authority have called for a redrafting of policy M7b on hydraulic fracturing to include acidisation. But the latest version of the plan has been approved by both authorities without this change.
Cllr Sandra James, who represents the Markwells Wood area on West Sussex County Council, voiced her concerns about acidisation when the minerals plan was discussed at a full meeting of the authority last week (16/12/2016).
Cllr James (UKIP, Bourne division) told the meeting:
“The government has made a commitment to ensure that hydraulic fracturing cannot be conducted from wells that are drilled at the surface of national parks and other protected areas.
“This definition of fracking should, in my view, be strengthened to include oil extraction using the technique of acidisation which I would contest is a lighter version of fracking.”
She said acidisation was “closely aligned” to fracking and had similar environmental implications and concerns.
She said the new wording was:
“required to offset the rapidity of technical developments for oil extraction which, on the surface, [is] term[ed] differently from fracking but where their technique is closely aligned to fracking and where similar environmental implications and concerns exist.”
Cllr James called for policy M7b to be redrafted to include the process of acidisation and other fracking-related techniques.
She also called for stronger wording to protect properties affected by oil and gas developments. The current wording of both M7a and M7b requires unacceptable impacts to be minimised or mitigated. Cllr James said this should be replaced with prevented.
The issue was also raised when members of the South Downs National Park Authority approved the latest version of the plan (29/11/2016).
Alun Alesbury, who represents West Sussex parishes on the authority, called for a more restrictive policy for acid fracking in the National Park than the policy which covered what he described as the “nodding donkey old-fashioned” extraction.
Mark Dunn, representing Chichester District Council, said he was “rather disturbed” that the national park authority had relied on a briefing by the American Petroleum Institute.
Next month’s consultation will ask people to comment on the “soundness and legal compliance of the plan”.
Cllr Bob Lanzer, the cabinet member responsible for the plan on West Sussex County Council, told Cllr James:
“It will be going out to renewed representation over a period of some two months at which point you will have the opportunity to make those detailed representations and it is conceivable that if you were to speak with me about some of those details offline from this meeting that you might have support of them in subsequent representations regarding the minerals local plan.”
The consultation closes on Monday 13 March 2017.
If major changes are needed, the plan will be redrafted and sent back to the council and national park authority to approve again.
If no major changes are needed, it will go to an independent planning inspector. West Sussex is currently expecting to adopt the plan in May 2018.