Exploration company UKOG should know within three weeks whether there is oil under a large part of the Weald.
It plans to start taking cores of rock from its well at Broadford Bridge in West Sussex next week. After analysis, the company said this should confirm whether oil-bearing Kimmeridge Limestones at Horse Hill near Gatwick spread south to the area around Billingshurst and Pulborough.
If the news for the company is good and the oil flows commercially, UKOG’s executive chairman, Stephen Sanderson, said he would consider sinking 3-5 more wells at the site and there would be room for up to 10. The company would also establish more well sites – possibly about six – between Broadford Bridge and Horse Hill.
UKOG offered tours of the site today to local journalists – and DrillOrDrop was there.
But as we arrived by mini bus with a police escort, opponents of the Broadford Bridge operation gathered at the gate in protest. They have argued they are not getting answers from UKOG to their concerns about risks to air and water quality, industrialisation of the countryside, increased traffic and climate change.
Stephen Sanderson met reporters at the site and described the Broadford Bridge operation:
“This is about as green an oil and gas exploration as you can get.
“It is as safe and secure as you will find. There is no noise and no sightlines”.
But campaigner, Nicola Peel (below left), from nearby Pulborough, said:
“There is no such thing as clean fossil fuel extraction. It is dirty by nature.”
And Friends of the Earth said:
“We believe that drilling should simply not be allowed here.
“Oil is a fossil fuel which should be left in the ground if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
The Broadford Bridge site is surrounded by pasture and parkland. Isolated farms and cottages are beyond the fields and tree banks. This afternoon, a buzzard dived after the site’s drone. A butterfly crossed the crushed aggregate and containers of the pad.
UKOG began drilling on 29 May and expects to continue for another 10-12 days. The well has now reached 2,000ft, of the 4,500ft target. The deviated section is now heading straight in a north-north-easterly direction towards Horse Hill.
If the core analysis matches UKOG’s hopes, the company will test the flow of oil for 10 weeks from mid July to mid-September.
For the well to be commercially-viable, flow rates need to be 1,000 barrels (five tanker loads) per day. The target is to produce 1 million barrels over the life of the well. Production could start in 2018 or 2019 if permissions were granted.
Stephen Sanderson said:
“If we find oil here it suggests there are continuous oil deposits stretching the 30km from Horse Hill to Broadford Bridge.
“If we see this continuous oil deposit, that is good news for UK plc.
“There may be 10 billion barrels in the ground between here and Horse Hill but what we can get out is a smaller percentage of that.
“We will have some idea within the next three weeks of whether the well will be a success”.
The site’s technical advisor, Rob Wallace, said:
“This is very exciting. It is about as exciting from a geological point of view as it gets. We would not be doing this if we thought we were wrong but there is always a risk. If there was not a risk it would not be the same business.”
But before flow testing can begin, the company must get consent from the Environment Agency and its permit application for this part of the operation has prompted multiple objections.
Opponents complained that the document contained inaccuracies which have shaken their confidence in UKOG.
Nicola Peel told DrillOrDrop
“They say in case of emergency we will be taken to Horsham Hospital but there is no A & E at Horsham. I have asked the emergency services what the emergency response plan is in case of chemical spills from an HGV, leaking methane or an explosion. No one has been able to tell me, not even the chief inspector. If there is a risk we should know how to proceed.”
It’s difficult to assess the scale of local opposition. Since the rig was installed last month, small numbers of opponents have gathered every day in front of the site. On Saturdays larger groups have demonstrated on the edge of Billingshurst.
A protection camp has established in a nearby paddock. Two lock-on protests have temporarily closed the site and the road. At a public meeting in Pulborough on a bank holiday Sunday, about 150 people packed a hall to ask questions.
One local person reported how she had changed her mind since a very early meeting with the then operator, Celtique Energie.
“I was rather taken in I think by the rather swish presentation and all the emphasis was on how little they were going to be doing. I feel now I was duped. It really felt like a punch in the stomach.”
UKOG’s Stephen Sanderson blamed what he called “a huge amount of scaremongering by a small number of people”. He added:
“There is a growing feeling among residents of the three villages [Pulborough, Broadford Bridge and West Chiltington] that the protesters are not welcome. Closing the road is a pain for everybody.”
The company’s spokesperson added:
“We have overwhelming support but a tiny minority are very good at their jobs. They know what buttons to press and numbers to ring.
“Three or four people are campaigning against it”.
But Nicola Peel refuted this:
“I do not know how they can say there is overwhelming support because the majority of the locals still don’t know anything about it. I went into the Queens Head on Locals Night and it was full and still no one knew. Those that I have spoken to locally are opposed, so I’m not sure where all the supporters live?”
The meeting room used by West Chiltington parish council was overflowing on Tuesday this week with people who wanted to ask questions about a liaison group between UKOG and representatives of the parish councils. Some local people had been pressing for a public meeting.
But the company said today:
“Public consultation is at the planning stage. There is no requirement for us to do anything. Nothing useful would come out of a public meeting because certain people would make it impossible.”
Nicola Peel responded:
“How can they possibly say a few people would make it impossible if they haven’t even tried. If they have nothing to hide and are totally transparent why not come to the village hall and speak with us? By not coming and making excuses it just looks like they have something to hide. Be proud of your business and what you stand for. Walk your talk and speak your truth.”
UKOG said it is hosting visits of 30 residents to the site on Friday and the following week. The company’s spokesperson said:
“We were hoping that the three parish councils would feed on our information. They do not appear to have that direct communication.”
UKOG describes Broadford Bridge as a zero-discharge site.
Like all oil and gas sites, it is underlain by an impermeable liner. The rig and oil storage tanks are surrounded by a containment bund. The well pad has perimeter ditches which collect any rainwater or spills, which are taken away for treatment.
But this hasn’t satisfied opponents. Geologists have reported there are faults close to the site, which they say lead to the River Arun and other water catchments.
Nicola Peel, in a letter to the company, asked about the purpose and volume of two chemicals listed in the permit application (CT-17/02WT and CT31/02WT) which were described as either toxic or very toxic. She said:
“Water is everybody’s greatest concern”.
UKOG said nothing could get from the site to the groundwater. It also stressed that it was using a drilling fluid described as “basically potato starch”. It published approved drilling chemicals and fluids on its website today.
Opponents frequently raise concerns about the threat of industrialisation from the onshore oil and gas industry in the Weald. In an earlier interview about Horse Hill, Stephen Sanderson said:
“This type of oil deposit very much depends on being able to drill your wells almost back to back so it becomes very much like an industrialised process.”
Today the company said:
“We would not be allowed to do it and we would not want to. There are too many restrictions.”
And Stephen Sanderson said:
“Site selection is really important to us. This site is tucked away. There’s a 600m drive to get here.
“You want sites that are quite isolated, where you cannot see them, not close to villages or small roads.
“You could put them by motorways or railway sidings. You can minimise impact.”
He described as a “gross exaggeration” suggestions that there would be eight wells per square mile. UKOG’s strategy was to centralise production into small sites, he said.
“When we finish drilling, all that [equipment and the rig] goes. There will be nothing to see or hear.”
UKOG executives like the idea of locally-produced energy, comparing it to local food.
Stephen Sanderson said:
“Locally-produced oil has a lower carbon footprint, like locally-grown veg, compared with something from a long way away, some of which have lower environmental standards than we have.”
He said energy security would be important to the UK post-Brexit. And it had the bonus of creating jobs and tax revenue.
The company estimated that an oil site could generate gross revenues of about £40m over its life, assuming an oil price of $50 a barrel and production of 1 million barrels.
Asked how many jobs the site had created, UKOG said there were currently 12-15 people employed on site but could not say how many, if any, of jobs were new.
The company has invested nearly £6m in Broadford bridge. Stephen Sanderson said site construction, carried out by the former operator, Celtique Energie, cost £1m. Other costs were: drilling the well: £3.6m; completing the well to allow for future production: £0.8m; and flow testing: £1.4m.
UKOG also said it was negotiating with the industry body and the tax authorities about calculating business rates on gross revenue and paying them directly to the district council. There are currently no formal community benefit schemes for onshore oil production sites.
Stephen Sanderson said:
“My view is that there is a misalliance between the benefits and what the locality has to put up with. Local councillors get a lot of flak from people who don’t want it. Local people don’t see anything for it.”
He said UKOG aimed to give 6% of gross revenues to the local community, equivalent to what could be about £2.4m per well, through a combination of business rates and benefits.
“Keep it in the ground”
Mr Sanderson passed a sample of refined oil from the Horse Hill well among the visiting journalists with the words:
“I love the smell of oil in the morning. It reminds me of money.”
In response to the opponent’s calls to keep oil in the ground, he replied:
“We are pragmatic people. We live in the real world. There may well be substitutes for plastics but it’s not going to happen for 10-15 years.”
Friends of the Earth responded:
“It’s clear we should be investing more in the real alternative of renewable energy and cutting energy waste.”
Other campaigners pointed to alternative forms of plastic already being developed. One said:
“Sounds like Mr Sanderson is a bit behind the times”.
Updated 15/6/2017 to correct reference in Industrialisation section by Mr Sanderson to density. This should refer to wells, not sites.