Dunsfold drilling plans spark debate over whether onshore gas helps tackle climate change

A woman living near a proposed gas exploration site in Surrey is challenging the developer’s claims that it will support efforts to tackle climate change.

Drilling rig proposed for UKOG’s Dunsfold site in Surrey. Source: UK Oil & Gas plc

UK Oil & Gas plc (UKOG) has argued that onshore drilling at its planned site at Dunsfold would be consistent with local and national climate change policies.

Surrey County Council is due to decide the company’s application next week (Friday 27 November 2020).

This will be the second time the application has been considered. A decision to refuse, made in June 2020, was declared invalid because of technical difficulties during the online committee meeting.

After that meeting, UKOG’s planning consultant, the Zetland Group, sent a clarification document to Surrey County Council planners, responding to comments made by objectors.

Earlier this month, Kirsty Clough, a Godalming resident and opponent of the scheme, sent the council a rebuttal of some of the clarifications. She questioned Zetland Group’s comments about the role of onshore oil and gas in the transition to a low carbon economy and the value of the proposed site to Surrey.

Many of these points were quoted in the report by planning officers to next week’s committee, which recommended approval of the application.

Ms Clough’s rebuttal, which accused Zetland of making misleading statements and misquotes, was not mentioned in the planners’ report. She said:

“The information in the [Zetland] report cannot be relied on as part of the decision-making process for this application.”

She also said planning officers “appeared to have swallowed” UKOG’s claim that the Dunsfold would benefit efforts to tackle climate change”:

“This is nonsense. This is not an application for carbon capture, neither is it an application to generate hydrogen, it is an application to drill for gas and oil in the Surrey countryside.

“We urge the members of the Planning Committee to properly inform themselves before coming to a decision.”

The officers had “no observations” to make on the Zetland statements on climate change. They said these had been addressed in the report to the original committee meeting.

Clarification and rebuttal – the key issues

Is gas exploration needed at Dunsfold?

Zetland Group said:

“[The site] will test the Godley Bridge Gas Discovery, in a more optimal geological location (compared to historic locations) whilst simultaneously testing deeper oil & gas potential.

“Recovery techniques are constantly evolving and reducing the environmental effects of exploration and a constant downward pressure on the duration of drilling make it feasible to re-visit areas of known potential.”

These considerations justified a need for exploration, consistent with local and national policy, the Zetland Group said. It added:

“Any reasonable counter-claim that disputes these policies and guidance would need to be based on verifiable evidence as opposed to personal opinion.”

Kirsty Clough said:

“I understand that no technical reports have been submitted which substantiate claims made by UK Oil & Gas regarding the volume of hydrocarbon deposits present. As such, the justification of a need for exploration as stated by Zetland is not valid.”

Does onshore oil and gas have climate change benefits?

Opponents of the Dunsfold application said the oil and gas industry has not demonstrated the climate change benefits of onshore exploration

Zetland Group said in its clarification document that this claim was “unsubstantiated” and “misrepresented” local and national climate change mitigation policy. It said Surrey County Council’s climate change strategy and the net zero 2050 emissions target from the Committee on Climate Change [CCC] were “not predicated upon restricting hydrocarbon exploration”.

Zetland added that indigenous exploration would:

“ensure that the reserves the UK needs can be sustainably sourced in the interests of climate change mitigation:

– allowing the UK to retain control over carbon emissions;

– developing new technologies that avoid, capture or minimise carbon emissions; and

– avoiding emissions generated by the international shipping of imported oil and gas.”

Kirsty Clough said Zetland had made “no valid arguments” about how the Dunsfold scheme would help efforts to tackle climate change.

She cited a 2019 UN report which said reducing fossil fuel production was essential to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.  

Commenting on the need for carbon capture and storage [CCS] in the transition to net-zero, she said:

“[this] is not relevant as the development of CCS is not predicated on an increase in the production of domestic fossil fuels.”

How important is carbon capture and storage?

Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) is promoted by high carbon industries as a way to continue the use and extraction of fossil fuels.

Zetland Group said:

“this technology [CCUS] is critical for “Net-zero”, its forecast value is £100 billion by 2050 and it is the hydrocarbon sector that’s driving the research”.

Kirsty Clough said:

“Whilst it is the case that the sector is involved in developing carbon capture and storage, it is the large oil and gas companies with potential offshore geological storage assets that are facilitating this – not small onshore companies such as UK Oil & Gas.

“In addition, it is worth noting that whilst CCS may well be vital to the delivery of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions it is unfortunately not at a stage of commercial development which provides any level of assurance that it will be in widespread use within the next few decades.”

What investment is needed to achieve net zero emissions?

The UK government has set a legally-binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. There have been estimates of the value of investment needed to reach the target.

Zetland Group said:

“The UK will need £1 trillion of new investments from many operators, large and small, in many locations exploiting many different technologies if “Net-zero” is to be achieved.”

Kirsty Clough said the £1 trillion quoted by Zetland is the amount of investment needed across the whole economy to deliver net zero. She said:

“It is not the amount of investment needed in the oil and gas sector as could be interpreted from the way Zetland have presented this.”

What should be the source of hydrogen in a low-carbon hydrogen economy?

Hydrogen is being promoted as an alternative to fossil fuels. It can be made from methane (known as blue hydrogen when produced with CCS and storage and grey hydrogen without). Alternatively, hydrogen can be made carbon-free from water using renewable energy.

Zetland Group said:

“A Low-carbon Hydrogen-based Economy: is integral to the next phase of decarbonisation in the UK. It is produced by the reformation of natural gas and, when combined with emerging CCUS technology (so-called “blue hydrogen”), it has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 19% in 2050 and the CCC assumes hydrogen production will use UK natural gas.”

Kirsty Clough said:

“Whilst the CCC’s central pathway to net-zero assumes that hydrogen will be produced primarily from natural gas, these pathways are indicative, not written in stone and are based on information (e.g. the costs of technologies) at the time of writing. In addition to the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels, hydrogen can also be produced by electrolysis, using electricity to split water.

“A report from Bloomberg NEF, published after the CCC’s net-zero report, suggests that when CCS is taken into account, the costs of fossil hydrogen production and ‘green’ hydrogen production (production using renewable electricity) could be similar by 2030. It also forecasts that ‘green’ hydrogen could be the cheapest option by 2050 if the right policies are put in place.”

Where should future oil and gas come from and how much do we need?

Zetland Group said:

“The CCC establish the UK’s demand will still be 65 Mtoe in 2050 but if net-zero is to be achieved, at least 30% will need to come from UK production”.

Kirsty Clough said:

“Demand for oil and gas is falling and will continue to do so at an accelerated rate as the UK transitions to net-zero. Demand has already fallen by over 20% since 2000 and based on the CCC’s net-zero scenarios, will have fallen by around 64% below 2000 levels by 2050.”

She suggested that Zetland had misunderstood the estimate by the CCC. It was not referring to the need for a certain percentage of oil and gas to come from UK production, she said.

“It is merely giving current forecasts of future oil and gas production from the UKCS [UK continental shelf].

What is the value of the UK oil and gas sector?

Zetland Group said:

“Today the sector is worth £24 billion (1.2% of UK GDP) supporting 270,000 jobs”.

Kirsty Clough said:

“it is worth clarifying that this claim relates to the UK oil and gas sector as a whole (onshore and offshore). Indeed, the offshore sector provide the lion’s share by far of these revenues and jobs.”

Will Surrey benefit from onshore gas?

Zetland Group said:

“Surrey is uniquely placed to benefit [from the need to invest in net zero] given the experience and expertise of its established hydrocarbon sector and its proximity to the gas-bearing Portland sandstone of the Weald Basin, one of only two locations in southern England where Jurassic rocks allow for the accumulation of commercial gas deposits.”

Kirsty Clough said:

“It is not clear what climate “benefits” Surrey would receive from further investment in onshore oil and gas development in the region. UK Oil & Gas’s application is not an application to develop climate mitigation technologies, such as those needed for carbon capture and storage, neither is it a proposal to generate hydrogen, it is a proposal to explore for oil and gas.

She added:

“The claim that the Jurassic rocks in southern England contain commercial gas deposits is misleading.

“This claim of commerciality has yet to be proven and is particularly questionable given that the output from UK Oil & Gas’ site at Horse Hill is failing to meet expectations regarding oil production volumes.”

Will transition to a low-carbon economy result in reduced fossil fuel imports?

Zetland Group quoted the CCC as advocating “a diverse energy mix” including “an efficient and sustainable use of indigenous hydrocarbons”. The Zetland Group referenced the CCC as saying the transition to a low-carbon economy should reduce the UK’s reliance on “imported fossil fuels” and “enhance the UK’s energy sovereignty “.

Kirsty Clough said these quotes from the CCC were about the impact that reducing demand for fossil fuels would have on these issues, not the impact that increased domestic production could have”.

She added:

“An increase in the domestic production of a globally-traded commodity, such as oil or gas, will not help the UK to retain control over carbon emissions. Oil and gas produced in the UK will not necessarily be used here.

“Whilst net imports would decrease if domestic production increased, the impact on gross imports cannot be certain.”

6 replies »

    • Sarah

      The irony of your arguments to the court of appeals for Horse Hill is one thing.

      You have chosen IMO. in your arguments to the court of appeals to ignore all current legislation and make demands on legislation that is not in place, ignoring down stream legislation that provides the checks, balances & regulatory information required by the regulators. This is all in the defence submissions.

      It is against practice to do that upstream emissions for a valid reason which is that not all refined product’s will have emissions & individual products are regulated on a individual basis.

      e.g. CO2 car emissions are monitored by MOT’s by engine size, & annual milage & actually individual car giving accurate readings.

      This is opposed what may a sequence of estimates that have no basis!

      I hope for your sake you have not been mislead.

      Please read my previous reply as a example of legislation of the oil chain as I am sure there is regulation from licence issue though refining & every step of the way & products produced & it’s production unerneath.

      This could be emissions or chemical hazards as per product.

      I am not the judge & I appreciate your efforts but at the Court of Appeal stage I hope you understand you are pulling at straws.

      I look forward to a Surrey council & UK government policy victory but understand your desperation

      I hope you & your your supporters are prepared for the consequences of you actions?

      I am not the judge in this case but you & your council’s arguments seem rather niaeve imo.

      If your only aim is to make a name for yourself & disrupt the UK PLC. & it’s agents work I wish you & your supporters everything that is coming to you!

  1. Citing the UN report about reducing fossil fuel, begs the question as to who decides which bit of fossil fuel production to reduce!

    (I understand there was also a UN report which PROMOTED local sourcing of materials, to help address climate change!)

    Government, is the answer. If local Government take a different view, then they can do so, but then the consequences are theirs.

    Do they reduce the bit that is used to manufacture products for the NHS, do they reduce the bit that enables areas of the world that suffer natural disasters to be rescued and rebuilt, do they reduce the bit that is fuel for farmers to produce enough food to feed the population, and do they reduce the bit that enables a decarbonised form of energy (hydrogen) to be delivered??

    Not sure any Government would find they would be supported on any of that, and Councillors should consider they are equally informed. Ill informed decisions cost tax payers money and reduced services. I recall another activist suggesting during the last discussion around this application that being knowledgeable only required a small amount of knowledge! Nope, when it comes down to planning then those responsible really do need to be knowledgeable, (if they are not, then they should follow the advice of the Planning and Legal officers) otherwise others pay the consequences, and then there will be questions about impeding transition due to lack of funding!

  2. I think Kirsty does a good job picking apart some of the arguments.

    Some (the first one) which seems to say that you need to have explored and found out how much oil is in place before you can go and explore to find out how much oil is there, and how much is recoverable. Maybe not.

    But as the company has had a go at trying to say how green they are in order to address some of the objections, it is on a hiding to nothing.

    Its a small local oil operation and sells its products to the local refinery but a lot of people who use the product, do not want the means of its production on their doorstep. Dreamed up hurdles for it to jump in order to get planning permission are ever likely to provide a rich source of argument.

    Also, good to see repeats of old arguments in different clothes.

    For the one below, put in ‘energy storage’ rather than CCS, and was that not used to support fossil fuel production and use?

    Kirsty Clough said:

    “Whilst it is the case that the sector is involved in developing carbon capture and storage, it is the large oil and gas companies with potential offshore geological storage assets that are facilitating this – not small onshore companies such as UK Oil & Gas.

    “In addition, it is worth noting that whilst CCS may well be vital to the delivery of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions it is unfortunately not at a stage of commercial development which provides any level of assurance that it will be in widespread use within the next few decades.”

  3. The Group’s arguments are, I’m afraid, yet another example of greenwashing – dig more wells, produce more plastics, disadvantage renewables and alternatives in the allocation of resources and investments, carry on doing what we’ve been doing, the planet can only benefit by our efforts to continue the quest for huge profits for the few. Reports of the accelerating death of life on earth are fake news: CCS (if we can get it going) will save all.
    A disquieting argument, to say the least. Can the courts allow these arguments to prevail?

  4. Except, Dunsfold is about GAS!

    So, the fake news is there-but not as suggested.

    The quest for huge profits for the few? Oh dear, not the time to be so severe upon Mr. Musk when Tesla is just entering the S&P 500 Index. Anyone interested in why that has taken so long? Because one major criteria is that the company has to make a profit! Yet, Mr. Musk and a few seem to have been making that huge profit PRIOR to that!

    Quite difficult to justify the anti capitalist message when that is the example from the alternative. But, just ignore and make the message-it is the norm.

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