A report released this afternoon recommends approval of plans by Cuadrilla to test the flow of oil at its well in Balcombe, West Sussex.
The county council’s planning committee is due to discuss the company’s application at a meeting on 9 January. Link to agenda and reports
Council planners, in a report to the committee, said there had been 2,739 objections to the proposals, including from Balcombe, Ardingly and Worth Parish Councils, Friends of the Earth, Sussex Wildlife Trust, Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association and Campaign to Protect Rural England .
The parish council submitted the result of a local ballot from 2013 in which a majority of participants wanted to object to applications like this in the village.
Opponents of the scheme raised issues including Cuadrilla’s financial condition, its lack of community engagement and the absence of an Environmental Impact Assessment.
There were also concerns about the transport of large or hazardous materials past the village school, the need for alternative noise and air quality surveys and independent monitoring, risk to groundwater and water pollution and the impact of the rig and flare.
There were 11 comments in support and four raising concerns. The planners said apart from parish councils, no statutory bodies had objected. They said the proposals could have an impact on local roads, residents and the environment but they recommended approval with 20 conditions.
Cuadrilla drilled its Balcombe well four years ago, attracting daily protests for about three months. The company ran out of time to do the flow testing before the permission expired in September 2013.
In 2014, it applied for six months of permission to do seven days of flow testing, followed by pressure monitoring and site restoration. This work was also not carried out and the permission lapsed in May 2017.
The company is now seeking a two-year consent to do the same work. The extra time is intended to allow the company to analyse the results before deciding whether to abandon the well or submit proposals for oil production.
The work will involve a rig on site for four weeks and a flare for one week, planners said.
Other equipment would comprise: a beam pump (nodding donkey), coiled tubing unit, acid pump, generators, tanks for oil, water, acid and nitrogen, a separator (which separates oil, gas and water from the well) and a nitrogen pump. A 40m crane would be needed to support the coiled tubing and would be in place for less than a week.
The site, at Lower Stumble is on the edge of Balcombe, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and next to ancient woodland. It is 1km from Ardingly Reservoir.
Delivery and installation of equipment
Duration: 1 week
HGV movements in and out: 33
Maximum daily HGV movements: 20
Proposed working hours: 7.30am-6.30pm, Monday-Friday and 8am-1pm Saturday
Cleaning the well
This would use 10% hydrochloric acid pumped through the coiled tubing unit. The rig would be at full height (32m)
Flow testing and flaring
Duration: 14 days including set up.
Hydrocarbon flow: 7 days, 24-hours a day, with flaring to burn off gas.
HGV movements in and out: 49 HGVs
Maximum daily HGV movements: 12
Cuadrilla’s proposed working hours: 24 hours a day
Pressure gauges would be installed in the well. The well would be shut-in and secured. This helps to establish what reserve is available, the density of the fluid and the permeability of the rock.
If hydrocarbons are found to be commercially viable, equipment would be cleared from the site, the well secured and a new planning application submitted for production.
Duration: 60 days
HGV movements in and out: 4 HGVs
Maximum daily HGV movements: 4
Cuadrilla’s proposed working hours: 24 hours a day
Plugging and abandonment
If the hydrocarbons were not commercially viable, the well would be plugged and abandoned.
Duration: 8 weeks
HGV movements in and out: 47 HGV
Maximum daily HGV movements: 10
Cuadrilla’s proposed working hours: 7.30am-10pm, Monday-Friday and 8am-1pm Saturday
Demobilisation and restoration
If the well were abandoned, the site would be cleared and restored.
Duration: 1 week
HGV movements in and out: 17 HGV
Maximum daily HGV movements: 12
Cuadrilla’s proposed working hours: 7.30am-6.30pm, Monday-Friday and 8am-1pm Saturday
The proposed development is predicted to increase heavy goods vehicle (HGV) movements on local roads by up to 8%.
Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association (FFBRA) and Balcombe Parish Council raised concerns about increased traffic past the village school and on rural roads. FFBRA recommended HGVs should travel south, rather than go through the village. It also called for emergency procedures in case of spills on the village road.
The planners said there would be an estimated 85 HGV entering and leaving the site over a period of 12 weeks. There was no objection from council highways officers but they recommended restrictions on the timing of journeys past the school. The planners said the route through the village was more direct.
“The disturbance is considered to be minimal given the number of HGVs involved.”
FFBRA said the site was too close to homes and the noise impacts would be unacceptable. The nearest home is 350m away. Balcombe Parish Council said the application’s noise survey was inaccurate because it did not include the flare.
The planners said:
“The development has the potential to adversely affect residential amenity and health primarily through increased noise and emissions to air.”
But they concluded that noise from the flare and site equipment could be “adequately controlled by conditions”.
A noise management plan would be required before work started and noise monitoring would be undertaken continuously during operations by Cuadrilla, the planners said. A condition would limit the decibel level of noise but the planners did not recommend a condition on working hours.
Balcombe Parish Council said a more detailed air quality survey was needed. Frack Free Balcombe raised concerns about the impact of flaring on public health. Opponents were particularly concerned that prevailing winds would take emissions from the flare across the village and that the top of the flare was below the level of homes.
The planners conceded there could be impacts on air quality from the flare and site traffic. But they added that emissions from the flare would be regulated by the Environment Agency and the impact of increased vehicle numbers on amenity and air quality was “not considered to be significant”.
FFBRA included in its objection the amount of water likely to be used in the operation and raised concerns about pollution of the water environment, including the shallow aquifer at the site and nearby streams.
There were specific concerns about the use of hydrochloric acid in the borehole. The Environment Agency said the resulting salty water, formed by acid reacting with drilling debris and the surrounding rock, was considered non-hazardous. The EA said:
[it] “does not create a risk to groundwater as it cannot migrate to where there is groundwater as there is no pathway to where groundwater can be found”.
The planners said the proposals could have an impact on the water environment. But they cited minerals policy (paragraph 12 of the Planning Practice Guidance, Minerals), which notes that planning authorities should assume the well is constructed and the site is operated appropriately. The Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive have not raised concerns, the planners said.
Balcombe Parish Council proposed Cuadrilla pay a bond to cover the costs of pollution damage. But the planners said financial guarantees were justified only in exceptional cases involving very long term projects, novel approaches or where there was reliable evidence of likely financial or technical failuture.
The Balcombe site is in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. FFBRA said Cuadrilla’s proposals would have an adverse impact on the AONB. But the council’s landscape officer concluded the proposal would be unlikely to result in significant impacts on landscape or natural beauty of the area.
The highest equipment would include a workover rig (32m), crane (40m) and flare (13.7m). The planners said the equipment would be most visible for a four-week period. For the remainder of the time, it would be relatively low profile.
The report said objectors had raised concerns about the impact on bats. But the council’s ecology officers had raised no objection providing there were controls on lighting and a requirement for bat monitoring.
The need for the development
Friends of the Earth and Sussex Wildlife Trust objected because they said the proposals would contribute to climate change and did not fit within government policy.
The planners concluded there was an identified need for local oil and gas production.
“There is an identified need for development on this particular site, to establish whether the hydrocarbons identified in drilling in 2013 are exploitable”.
Other issues raised in the consultation
Deterioration of village life
- Concern at the lack of county council resources and expertise to deal with the application
- Poor performance of Cuadrilla during summer 2013
- Cumulative impact of boreholes and sites in the Sussex Weald.
The planners recommended 20 conditions. These included:
- Mobilisation, flow test and pressure monitoring to be completed within six months of the start of work
- Pollution Prevention Statement and plans for surface and foul water drainage, lighting, noise and traffic management, security and restoration.
- Limits on daytime, evening and night time noise
- Monitoring of noise at the nearest home
- Bat monitoring
The planning committee meeting is on Tuesday 9 January, 10.30am, County Hall, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 1RQ. Agenda