Councillors in West Sussex have unanimously approved planning permission for another year at the oil exploration site at Broadford Bridge near Billingshurst. (Breaking news)
This allows the site operator, Kimmeridge Oil and Gas (KOGL), to assess the rate and volume of oil in a well drilled earlier this summer. KOGL is a wholly-owned subsidary of UK Oil and Gas (UKOG).
The council’s planning committee heard presentations from opponents of the scheme and supporters. This post reports on the arguments for and against the application.
Sue Jameson, for Broadford Bridge Action Group
Actor Sue Jameson told the committee she had lived in the Weald for 40 years. She said she represented the genuine concerns of “a huge number of local residents” and two parish councils whose views had not been properly reflected in the planning officers’ recommendation.
“Nearly 400 largely local objectors believe “insufficient evidence has been sought, and regulatory conditions have not been monitored effectively to minimise local impact from this extension”.
She said the planning report had said the number of vehicles required was insignificant. But local people had seen no evidence of an updated survey of road conditions, volume of HGVs or speeding incidents.
A survey by Broadford Bridge Action Group found there had been a 68% rise in the number of larger HGVs compared with two years, representing 73 large HGVs on the road in one day. The recommendation to approve the application had been based on accepting the original forecast of just two more HGVs daily – a huge underestimate, she said.
Ms Jameson said West Chiltington and Billingshurst parish councils had asked for speed limits on the B2133 but these have not been considered. Nor has a request from West Chiltington for daylight-only operation.
She asked whether West Sussex Highways department had checked when, in response to an unpleasant smell on the road, UKOG informed the parish council it was “dirty water” from a contractor’s kitchen unit being removed from the site.
She also said there were reported breaches of working hours at the Broadford Bridge site, with Sunday working in August, people using the site outside designated weekday hours and people woken at 4am by lights, workmen and machinery.
The company had said the drilling would be in operation for 28 days but it had continued for 104, she said
“We, the residents believe the impacts will continue to be unacceptable if this extension is approved.
“We believe our lives and the environment will be impacted significantly and that you have not gathered enough evidence to assess full impact of this operation.”
Jim Kelsey, woodsman for the Stopham estate
Mr Kelsey said the council had a responsibility under strategic objective 10 of the Draft Minerals plan to safeguard water resources from contamination. Policy M16 also required the council to ensure mineral development does not cause unacceptable risk to quality and quantity of water resources.
The decision to drill the Kimmeridge limestone rather than deeper sandstones was material because it increased the risk to water quality and contamination, which the council has a duty to guard against, he said.
He told the meeting:
“Only a day after the rig was disconnected last week, ditches that had, up until then, been full with water were dry, and the level of water in a well over half a mile away from the site had dropped by almost five feet. This was after 3 days of rain. An obvious conclusion is that there is a rapid and open connection between the oil well and the surface water over half a mile away. The spring that had run completely dry usually drains into the River Arun.”
He said local people had been monitoring at six other sites and had found that groundwater had dropped to similar levels.
Mr Kelsey added:
“We have a seemingly open fault, the pressure to provide the hydraulic head, and short distances for the pollution to travel. If this is the case, further work at the site is unacceptable and should be stopped.”
He said the acidising mixture given by UKOG (85% water, 15% hcl and 3-5% inhibitors) didn’t add up to 100% and some of the chemicals listed were said to be carcinogenic and others fatal to aquatic life. He said:
“At our own expense, [we have] completed a set of professional baseline water tests and will continue these tests using spectroscopic analysis to understand changes to the content of the ground and surface water. This should not be our responsibility.”
The group is monitoring over 40 sites, including boreholes, ditches, wells and rivers, with cooperation of 20 landowners and tenants, he said.
“We have already noted salinity is gradually rising over the drilling zone and to the east and west of this area – a potential sign of deeper groundwater entering springs at the surface.
“The washout which forced UKOG to drill their sidetrack should be setting off many alarm bells. But we have no idea what alarm systems are in place.”
He described the Broadford Bridge site as experimental not exploratory.
“We believe it is a fishing trip posing huge potential risks for us all.
“To do your legal and moral duty to residents and taxpayers we ask you to refuse this extension.”
Dr Roger Smith, trustee of Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE)
Dr Smith criticised the application for relying on an environmental statement submitted in 2012, which in turn used the results of ecological surveys carried out in 2011.
He said information in the environmental statement was inaccurate and misleading. When considering the damage which might be caused by a contaminated run-off from the site, the environmental statement said there were no protected areas within 10km of the site, and therefore the effect could be classified as negligible. But Dr Smith said there were Special Sites of Scientific Interest, Special Protected Areas and a designated RAMSAR site (wetland of international importance), all within 10km of the drill site.
This oversight, said Dr Smith, called into question the quality and reliability of other information supporting the application.
The application said there were no neighbouring trees or hedges which might influence the development or might be important to the local landscape. In reality, said Dr Smith, the site was surrounded by ancient woodland and adjacent to hedges.
The application also claimed that the drill site was not within 1 km of any area designated for nature conservation and therefore of low ecological value. However the ancient woodland is within 1km of the site, he said.
Dr Smith argued that the original environmental statement assumed that works would be completed between October and February, and that any resulting impacts would be temporary. Consequently the effect of extended operations on species such as bats and birds had not been assessed.
Dr Smith argued that up-to-date surveys were required and urged the council to refuse the application.
Nigel Moore, Zetland Group, agent for the applicant
Mr Moore, who is responsible for planning compliance at the Broadford Bridge site welcomed the planners’ report.
“This is an application to extend the life of a temporary planning consent for a further 12 months. No new or further work is planned. It is simply that more time is required due to a later than expected start date to drilling”
Mr Moore argued that the proposal complied with the development plan, which called for sites which presented the best environmental option for oil exploration. Seven alternative sites had been considered. Broadford Bridge was selected because: it was remote from environmental and built heritage assets; transport effects would be imperceptible and effects on amenity would be minimal. The extension proposal would not change any of these outcomes.
Finally Mr Moore pointed out that the Minerals Plan encouraged exploration because of the country’s increasing reliance on oil and gas imports.
“The site presents precisely the type of exploration activity envisaged by local and national planning policies.”
Matt Cartwright, Chief Operating Officer for Kimmeridge Oil and Gas Investments
Mr Cartwright stated that there had only been 7 months of operational activity on the site out of the 36 months agreed in the original planning consent. The activity had covered site construction and drilling. Phase 3 (flow testing) and Phase 4 (restoration) would be as in the original application.
The company had a good relationship with compliance officers from the council, who had made two site visits with no issues to report, he said.
The company kept in contact with regulators, as they wanted the site to be in full compliance. And the company was a good neighbour, welcoming over 200 people to the site to see operations for themselves.
KOGL intended to share future revenues if the site should ever get to production, paying a local royalty and business rates, he said. The company was also investigating whether possible future production could be exported from the site by pipeline and rail.
Stephen Sanderson Chief Executive, UKOG
Mr Sanderson, from KOGL’s parent company, UK Oil and Gas, thanked the planning committee for a very thorough and balanced report.
He described Kimmeridge Oil and Gas as a locally-based company, employing many local residents and as committed to safeguarding local environment as any of their detractors.
He cited the decision to use British-made, non-toxic bio-degradeable drilling fluid, claiming that this ensured wells were drilled to the same or better standards than drinking water wells in chalk and limestone aquifers.
Mr Sanderson said the company had a “strong and compliant relationship” with regulators, particularly the Environment Agency, who had made six snap visits to the site and found the operation “fully compliant in all areas”.
The public engagement team had explained the operation and environmental practices to over 200 visitors.
“hopefully dispelling the many and unsubstantiated myths and general scaremongering promulgated by a small but vocal minority, and crucially demonstrating that we strive to be good neighbours, are open and transparent and are at the forefront of industry best practices and environmental safeguards”.
Mr Sanderson described his company as “not only environmentally-respectful but also pragmatists”, arguing that the country needed oil for feedstocks, plastics and transport fuel.
He suggested there was a “significant wider aspect” for the committee to consider:
“The well results today provide proof of our geological concept – that Broadford Bridge and the Horse Hill oil discovery, some 30 kilometres apart, lie within the same regionally extensive and nationally significant oil accumulation, the first of its kind recognised in the UK.”
Given declining North Sea output, Mr Sanderson argued that the volume of oil which could be potentially extracted from this deposit was of national significance, and could bring substantial tax payments and revenue to the local area from proposed community royalty payments.
Councillors and officers
Pat Arculus, local County Councillor for Broadford Bridge
Cllr Arculus described the application as an emotional subject which had caused a lot of confusion. She said many people felt they were caught between two extremes: not trusting the oil industry but then seeing environmentalists who don’t want any oil drilling at all.
She said this left people to think “What’s in the middle? If we do need this, who is ensuring that it’s safe?”
“There are so many different agencies involved and they all have their own responsibility, and I don’t think that’s fully understood by the general public on knowing who does what and who makes what decision”.
She called on the council to carry out monitoring for which it was responsible, “properly and with a full ability”, and for planners to clarify which issues could be considered in each application. Many people had raised with her whether we should be drilling for oil at all, but this was an issue for government, not the council.
Cllr Arculus said she knew residents who thought that we do need to explore for oil, and as the drilling had already taken place you might as well finish the testing and find out whether or not it’s viable. There was a feeling of going into “no man’s land” if the extension was refused, she said. There would presumably have to be some sort of extension, just to do the site restoration.
Cllr Arculus called on people to trust the regulators because otherwise there would be “real concern over the whole way the country was run”.
Chris Bartlett, Principal Planning Officer
He clarified that the application was simply a time extension with no permission for new works.
On groundwater, the local plan was taken into account and the Environment Agency were consulted.
Chemicals used during drilling are not an issue for the planning authority, but were addressed through the environmental permit.
Jane Moseley County Team Planning Manager
She replied that the County ecologist had looked at issues raised by CPRE and had no concerns over the impact on ecology. English Nature also had no objections.
Members of the Planning Committee were then asked for comments.
Cllr Andrew Barret Miles
He asked what would happen if the application were refused
Jane Moseley replied that the company would be required to restore the site. An enforcement notice could be used to set out the steps needed for restoration
Cllr Barret Miles said that most visual impacts had now disappeared with the departure of the rig and he had heard nothing today to suggest they should not approve this application.
Cllr Nigel Jupp
He asked about environmental studies not being updated since 2011 and 2012.
Chris Bartlett replied that the county ecologist believed it would not be proportionate to request repeat ecological surveys at this stage. Because works were not being done outside the site, the impact on the ecology would be insignificant.
Cllr Simon Oakley
He asked for a condition on the use of lighting on the site and asked what could be done to improve the landscaping of the access track.
Chris Bartlett said the landscape officer had expected new planting along the access track to take better than it had. There was a five-year maintenance plan attached to the planting scheme, so there was scope to push for better results.
Cllr Brian Quinn
He asked how many of the consultation responses supporting the application were from local people.
Chris Bartlett replied that where contributions come from is not the point of the exercise – it’s the material point they make that is taken into account
Cllr Bill Acraman
He said that the oil company over the years had “shot themselves fairly significantly in the foot”. They had three years of planning permission and had sat on their hands for most of that time. If they had got on with it, they wouldn’t be here today, he said.
Cllr Acraman then referred to Jim Kelsey’s presentation and the potential for pollution of the river Arun. What was the officers’ reaction?
Jane Moseley replied that the Environment Agency considered the main risks involved surface operations, which were the closest to the aquifer. Runoff was contained by an impermeable membrane and remained on the site. HSE checked for leaks during the drilling stage to ensure nothing could leak into the water resources.
“I think we should be re-assured that impacts on the water environment have been checked and are acceptable”
Ms Mosely said that subsiding levels in the water sources were a matter for the Environment Agency and were carefully checked and controlled.
Cllr Acraman replied that this was “not a terribly good answer”, but you couldn’t expect planning officers to give expert opinions on Environment Agency matters.
“I don’t think she answered his [Jim Kelsey’s] concerns which were reflected in my question. Maybe she can’t”
Jane Moseley responded that “the key point is that you are supposed to rely on Environment Agency expertise”.
“Government guidance is very specific on this. They say the Environment Agency has responsibility for ensuring the risk to groundwater is appropriately identified and mitigated…We are required to check with them that it is satisfactorily covered, which we have done.”
Ms Moseley went on to say that “all sorts of these issues” had been raised during the application and consultation process and they had had comments from the Environment Agency “directly into response to those questions… Those particular queries have been answered by the Environment Agency”.
Cllr Liz Kitchen
Cllr Kitchen asked there was any emergency plan for the site? She also noted that seemed to be a difference of opinion on liaising with local residents and asked if there was a liaison panel?
Chris Bartlett stated that the emergency plan was not a matter for the planning authority, but rather for the HSE.
A liaison group was not considered necessary for the original application and is not considered necessary for this application as it is only for twelve months.
Cllr Duncan Crow, committee chair
Cllr Crow asked about traffic movements outside allocated working times
Jane Moseley answered that they had received allegations of traffic movements and operations out-of-hours and this was a matter of proper enforcement of conditions.
Cllr Oakley said that people monitoring water levels needed to take into account seasonal variations in natural groundwater conditions.
The committee agreed to attach an extra condition on lighting, stating that a lighting scheme should be submitted within one month, controlling light spill from the site and with the aim of minimising effect on neighbouring wildlife.
The recommendation to extend planning permission for Broadford Bridge was passed unanimously by the committee.
Reporting on this meeting was made possible by the individual donations of DrillOrDrop readers