The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has refused to renew a lease of land for oil drilling in Surrey because of the damage it could do to ancient woodland.
This morning, the oil company, Europa Oil & Gas, announced it was pulling out of the Bury Hill Wood site near Leith Hill because the lease on Forestry Commission land, which expires next week, was not being renewed (DrillOrDrop breaking news)
The decision on the lease was made by Mr Gove, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told DrillOrDrop this morning.
In a statement, Defra said:
“The nation’s woods and forests are cherished natural assets and we want to ensure they are protected now and into the future.
“Any decisions on activity within the Public Forest Estate are made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the environmental impacts and latest evidence.
“Because of the potential impact on nearby ancient woodland, the Environment Secretary has decided not to extend Europa Oil and Gas’ lease to carry out activity in Forestry Commission land.”
Mr Gove’s approach appears to conflict with other official decisions on oil drilling at Bury Hill Wood over the past few years. It also seems to go against government policy, which recently restated the national importance of onshore oil and gas exploration.
The Bury Hill Wood site, also known as Holmwood, is in the green belt and the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is within 600m of the Leith Hill Site of Special Scientific Interest and the site boundary is 50m away from ancient woodland.
Campaigners have argued for nearly 10 years that Europa’s proposed exploratory borehole would damage wildlife.
But the risk to ancient woodland was not mentioned by a planning inspector in his decision to grant permission in 2015. He said concerns about the impact on ecology, light pollution, hydrology and the local economy were small “negative elements” but did not “add great weight against the exploratory project”. He also said the harm would be reversible and a similar impact could have resulted from forestry operations.
In September 2017, the Forestry Commission refused to withdraw from the agreement with Europa. The organisation’s chief executive, Simon Hodgson, in correspondence with two local councillors, said:
“The very small area of land directly involved in this case, and the temporary nature of the exploration well on this site, means that we do not consider that it will interfere with our ability to sustainably manage the Public Forest Estate in this area or elsewhere.”
In July this year, Mr Hodgson refused to meet Surrey residents to discuss their concerns about drilling at Bury Hill Wood.
Also in July, the Environment Agency, a regulator reporting to Defra, conceded that the critical level of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from a proposed flare at Bury Hill Wood could be exceeded in a 24-hour period. But in granting an environmental permit, it said:
[This level] “is limited to 10-20m of the nearest part of the ancient woodland with the majority of woodland remaining below the critical level for NOx.”
“Ditching environmental constraints”
Mr Gove may have given hints of his decision on the lease during a speech in Surrey n May 2018.
Video: Surrey Residents Network
Speaking at the Surrey Rural Economy Conference, he argued for the need to safeguard and protect the environment for sustainable growth.
“History teaches us that when we think about trying to generate growth in an unsustainable fashion, you can for a period generate a level of economic growth by taking all the environmental constraints and ditching them. You can generate economic growth for a brief period which may be above the trend which you’ve previously enjoyed but only ultimately by undermining the solid and sound basis on which all economic growth and all human flourishing is based.”
Mr Gove said:
“We have been trying to drive economic growth in a way that has been literally unsustainable, that we have been quarrying natural resources from the earth at a rate which meant that we were in effect hacking into the tree of life, sawing off the branch on which we sit, undermining the foundation of our future.”
He said development in the green belt were some of the most contentious questions he had to deal with:
“they reflect the commitment which my constituents feel, that so many of us feel towards ensuring that that which we inherited, that with which we grew up as children, that which we pass on to others should be protected, preserved and enhanced.”
As well as Bury Hill Wood, onshore exploration schemes in the green belt have been approved at Marsh Lane in Derbyshire and Harthill in South Yorkshire.
Mr Gove added:
“My belief is that the future for the rural economy, the future for food production, the future for tourism and the future for all those who cherish and live in or near rural areas, that future will depend on people recognising that we are playing an appropriate role as stewards of, protectors of, enhancers of, our natural environment and that the food that we produce and the countryside we look after and the biodiversity which we cherish is all underpinned by a commitment to the highest possible standards and the highest possible ambitions for the future.”
“Great weight to the benefits of mineral extraction”
Six days after Mr Gove’s speech, joint written ministerial statements confirmed that shale gas was of national importance and that decision-makers should “give great weight to the benefits of mineral extraction”. The statements also announced plans to speed up decisions on shale gas exploration and new guidance for planners on onshore oil and gas generally.
The revised National Planning Policy Framework, released in July, required mineral planning authorities to “plan positively” for exploration, appraisal and production of onshore oil and gas.