The oil company, Angus Energy, faced criticism this morning from county councillors in Surrey over its operations at the Brockham oil site near Dorking.
The company was accused at a meeting of the council’s planning committee of confused communication, betrayal of trust and misleading statements.
The comments centred on a sidetrack well drilled in January 2017.
At the time, Angus said it was carrying out maintenance work on the existing wells at Brockham. But it later said it had drilled a new sidetrack and that this, along with future production from it, was covered by an existing planning consent.
The council refutes this. In a recent letter to the Oil and Gas Authority, planners have confirmed that both drilling and production from the new well need new permissions (DrillOrDrop report).
Cllr Jonathan Essex told today’s committee:
“They [Angus] have not just been not telling us what has been going on, they have been misleading us.”
The committee was discussing a separate retrospective application, made by Angus, for buildings, equipment and fencing that had already been installed at the Brockham site.
Cllr Essex said the council had trusted Angus to tell it, in advance, if it wanted to do anything at the site.
“My understanding is that this trust was broken. The company didn’t come forward and tell us what it was doing on site and that’s why they’re required to make this application now.
“They have not just broken our trust once. They have broken it twice. They have broken it once in terms of this, which was a minor piece of work which was above ground so we could see it. But also, they broke our trust by, in secret, drilling 3km underground.”
Cllr Jeff Harris said:
“They [Angus] are actually going ahead with work and asking for permission afterwards to see how far they can push it.”
“This [retrospective application] is a simple issue. But behind it there is an awful lot more. If we do not explore every single thing about this we are failing in our duty”.
Cllr Helyn Clack, who represents Brockham, said villagers were concerned about the dispute over the well.
She said a decision on the retrospective application should be deferred until the dispute over the sidetrack was settled.
“I am concerned that if we go ahead today with this planning application we might be weakening the situation in the future for exploration applications for explorations in the future, not just at Brockham but at other sites in the area.”
Cllr Stephen Cooksey said:
“We are not sure whether this development is there to service what is already onsite or whether it is there to service the new development, the sidetrack BRX4z, on which we are still waiting for the application.
“Until we get an application for that site we really should not be approving this application because it may well allow the development on the site without our permission.”
An unnamed member of the public told the committee the sidetrack was the only well that would allow Angus to produce oil from the Kimmeridge limestone formation.
“The buildings that are the subject of this application are meant to support production from a well drilled without permission and which is not permitted for production.
“We have a company that clearly cannot be trusted to operate within a regulatory framework that is catching up with the new technology.”
Some members of the committee had been on a recent visit to the Brockham site. In an environmental permit application, the company has said it wants to use acid to stimulate the flow of oil through the sidetrack well.
But one councillor, Bernie Muir (left), said what they heard on the visit did not always “relate to what was actually happening”.
“I asked specific questions about how the oil was being extracted and was led to believe that it was straightforward water injection.
“In fact, it is not straightforward water injection. I was interested that they didn’t come forward and actually say that at the time because acidisation is a very different process.”
Cllr Natalie Bramhall said committee members were elected by residents, not an oil company.
“If this company has not submitted an application [for the sidetrack] or had pre-application talks with officers maybe we should take enforcement action.”
The council’s development control manager, Alan Stones, said:
“Discussions are ongoing at present in respect of other applications in terms of this site. Early stages but I am hopeful that things would move forward and are sensibly resolved.”
Angus Energy has repeatedly said that the council has not responded formally to its view that planning permission was not needed. On its website it recently added:
“It is important to note that after 5 months, not only has the Surrey County Council never informed Angus Energy of any non-compliance or breach of planning permission.”
But the planning committee’s chair, Tim Hall, appeared to refute this today:
“They [Angus] know full well what we think.
“We have legal counsel’s opinion which says there needs to be an application. We have communicated that to Angus Energy. They know our position full well.”
Planners had recommended approval of the retrospective application. Mr Stone said accusations of misleading information or deceit were not grounds for refusal. Cllr Ernest Mallett warned that Angus Energy could appeal against a deferral and costs could be awarded against the council.
The committee voted by nine votes to two to grant retrospective planning permission for the buildings, fencing and equipment. A note is to be added to the decision document that Angus Energy should “engage with local people” on plans for the site. Mr Stones said this could deal with communication issues.
The decision notice will also include a note that the permission does not apply to the sidetrack.
The community group, Brockham Oil Watch, which has opposed Angus Energy’s activities at the site, said this was unenforceable.
“Who is going to monitor whether the staff using the toilet or the office are working on the existing wells or the new sidetrack?”
Angus Energy did not address the committee. It has posted a Q&A on its website about the Brockham dispute (link here). DrillOrDrop has offered the company a guest post to put its views.
Reporting on this planning meeting was made possible by individual donations to DrillOrDrop