By Kathryn McWhirter
Community campaigners against drilling for oil near Leith Hill plan to hand a 100,000+-strong petition to the Environment Agency at a meeting this week in Dorking. But at a press conference yesterday, Environment Agency staff said they were not prepared to be seen receiving the petition.
An Environment Agency (EA) drop-in information meeting for local residents two weeks ago was cancelled because of snow. The meeting will now take place on Thursday (15 March) at Dorking Halls and residents plan to hand in the petition at about 7pm.
The petition calls on the EA to reject permit applications for the Bury Hill Wood site near Leith, arguing that the “potential water contamination risks are unacceptable2”
At the press conference, four EA staff would not give their names or job titles, nor would they allow recordings.
One EA spokesman said:
“We won’t be doing any media around this. We are not going to be photographed receiving the petition. They are welcome to give the petition to one of the security guards, who will give it to us.
“We welcome people who are passionate about the environment. But this meeting is about the local people. We appreciate that they have a petition from 100,000 people.
“But we have to protect the health and safety of our staff. It can’t be handed in to an identifiable individual.”
Update 17/03: A representative of the Environment Agency did later agree to accept the petition – see Actors present 102,000+ signature petition
“Minded” to grant permits
The EA announced in mid-February that it was ‘minded’ to grant permits to Europa Oil and Gas for exploratory drilling at Bury Hill Wood in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A new public consultation on the EA’s draft decision has been extended until 29 March 2018.
A local resident commented at the press conference that much of the relevant information had been released by the EA only on February 18th when it announced that it was ‘minded’ to approve the permits. The resident said the EA had been asked to release information earlier so that people would have time to prepare their responses.
“The issue has now moved to a place from my perspective where we need to muster professional reports on the risks. And for that we need more time.”
An EA spokesman insisted that the Agency was following its standard approach for this kind of permit, that the statutory period for consultation was only 20 working days, and that they were not obliged to do a public consultation. It was voluntary.
The four EA representatives said they were not able to answer technical questions. They were asked about chemicals and proprietary mixes to be used, drilling into radioactive geology, type and sensitivity of air monitoring and whether two or three-dimensional seismic testing had been carried out in the area. But the media were told to submit these questions in writing because technical matters were handled by a separate team, they said.
The local resident commented that responses to written questions usually took weeks, and would not arrive before the new consultation deadline.
“Europa has minimised the risk to local water”
Despite ongoing concerns from the local water company about the drilling project, another spokesperson said the EA was satisfied that Europa ‘have minimised the risk of liquids transferring out of the well’.
The spokesperson said Europa had brought in new consultants to assess groundwater risks. The company would install above-specification groundwater monitoring, and had agreed to extend protective well tubing from 20 to 40 metres deep, past the aquifer.
Deviated (slanting) wells such as that proposed at Bury Hill Wood were especially prone to failure, commented a local freelance journalist.
An EA representative responded:
“In the first instance, we would trust in the Health and Safety Executive, to oversee well construction, in good faith. In the short term we would be carrying out normal checks. But another team investigates the lifetime integrity of wells.”
The Health and Safety Executive will be attending the public drop-in meeting on Thursday.
The EA was asked whether it was obliged to rubber stamp government policy? A staff member responded:
“We assess applications at face value. There is no obligation on us to say yes. We deal with what’s in the regulatory framework to the best of our ability.
“The initial application was for acid stimulation. We said no, and Europa agreed to cut it back to an acid wash.”
The EA was also asked whether at the next stage of operations it would expect a further application for acid stimulation. The reply was:
“We can only deal with a current application as it is.”
Asked how the EA would know whether the company was complying with the rules, the EA said:
“We will work very closely with the Health and Safety Executive and the Oil and Gas Authority to ensure compliance.”
A local journalist asked what sanctions the EA could employ if an operator ‘absent-mindedly’ stimulated a fracture or committed a similar breach of the rules.
“The EA and other bodies have the ability to record breaches, and if they reach a certain point we have the ability to take criminal action.
“We have a way of looking at breaches, assessing them in terms of public interest, environmental damage, the attitude of the offender, deciding whether we need to conduct a formal investigation, interviewing under caution, ultimately we can suspend a licence.
“The HSE have the real regulatory teeth. Ours is a bit more of a stepped process, it depends on the level of risk.”
The EA was also asked who in the organisation would make the final decision on the remaining permits at Bury Hill Wood. The representative said various working groups within the EA would get together “but this case will go to fairly senior level”.
Talk by David Smythe
After the EA meeting on Thursday 15 March, David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics, Glasgow, will give a talk and Q&A on unconventional oil and gas in the Weald and beyond, with a focus on Leith Hill. It is at the Friends Meeting House, Butter Hill, Dorking, RH4 2LE, 7.45pm-9.45pm. Tickets are free. To register
17/03 Post updated to report that Environment Agency representative did agree to accept the petition on the day