Oil companies operating in Surrey have played regulators off against each other, failed to consult with residents and lacked professional advisers, the chair of the county council’s planning committee has complained.
Cllr Tim Hall, speaking at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament, said:
“Understandably the public are now quite quizzical about any activity at any of these sites.”
Cllr Hall was giving evidence to an All Party Parliamentary Group about government proposals to change the planning rules for shale gas exploration and production.
He gave details of how one company, Angus Energy, told the county planning authority in winter 2017 it was just doing maintenance on its well site at Brockham near Dorking. But after three months, he said:
“We discovered they had drilled a whole new well without any permissions. This was discovered on site with the county, the Oil & Gas Authority, the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.”
At Bury Hill Wood, he said an oil exploration project had been in the planning system for more than nine years, including public inquiries and court cases. It was withdrawn only in September when the Environment Secretary refused to renew the lease on Forestry Commission land (DrillOrDrop report)
Cllr Hall said:
“It was up a sunken lane, behind Leith Hill, right in the middle of the AONB [Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty], the least accessible point in the county almost.”
He said the company had not done a proper transport assessment and it went to the planning committee at least three times on highways issues because a marshalling area, required by a planning inspector, did not have the owner’s consent.
“The first one was at Rykas [café] at the bottom of Box Hill. Somebody went into Rykas the week of the planning committee and said ‘What do you know?’. They knew nothing.
“The second time, it was the service station at Cobham on the M25. Again, there was correspondence before the meeting: ‘What do you know about this?’ ‘We know nothing, we don’t agree to this.’
“And the last time, which is quite amusing in its own way, they put out to consultation to use a layby on the M25 next to junction 9 only to meet the county planners the next day but also the police and Highways England. Highways England and the police both said ‘We’re not going to have demonstrators all over junction 9, get lost.’ So they had to withdraw it.”
Cllr Hall said:
“They did no proper consultation with the residents affected and they only had one serious access point which was one small lane full of agricultural premises and small businesses.”
At a third site, at Horse Hill, Cllr Hall said there had been “constant hype” in the financial press.
“So as a county planning authority, we are deluged with, on one side, objectors, protesters, campaign groups and on the other by shareholders who can’t understand why ‘our oil company’s told us this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and we’re having Houston in the Weald’.
“We spend a lot of time explaining to people, Brockham is a good example, your oil well hasn’t got planning permission, it’s not legit, there’s no way we’re agreeing this. But they say ‘our oil company tells us it’s all fine’.”
Cllr Hall said another problem involved the other regulators:
“There is a difficulty of getting all the regulators together at any one point to agree on what they need to do. Quite often the oil companies play us off against each other.”
At Brockham, he said the previously-disputed well now had planning permission site but it was operating under an old style environmental permit. “So we don’t know what water issues there are.”
He said another challenge was a lack of professional advisers in the oil companies. At the time of the Brockham dispute, he said Angus Energy had six staff, of which only two worked on the oil operation. At Bury Hill Wood, he said:
“They had ex security service personnel, which was interesting to watch their activities, rather than public affairs consultants.
“We did advise them at every stage to actually get some proper advice.
“I think they were quite surprised that they just couldn’t walk in and just drill over one of the most scenic parts of the south east.”
- DrillOrDrop invited Angus Energy and Europa to comment on Cllr Hall’s points. Neither company responded but this post will be updated if they do.
Reporting from the parliamentary meeting was made possible by individual donations to DrillOrDrop