County councillors in Surrey are being urged not to accept their officials’ assessment of the benefits of gas exploration near the village of Dunsfold.
Officers have recommended approval of proposals by UK Oil & Gas plc (UKOG) when the application is considered by the planning committee on Friday (27 November 2020).
But the community group, Protect Dunsfold, said UKOG had been allowed to use “unsubstantiated” and “generally unsupportable assertions” about the proposals.
The company has said the gasfield was potentially the UK’s second biggest onshore and could produce energy equivalent to that needed to power about 200,000 homes per year.
In a briefing document released today, Protect Dunsfold said UKOG should be required to provide evidence to back up its statements. The council should also independently verify UKOG’s claims, the group said.
Its director, Sarah Godwin, said:
“we have asked SCC [Surrey County Council] Councillors not to accept the officers’ assessment of the “strategic benefits” claimed by UKOG and to prefer the actual evidence.”
“UKOG has continued to make potentially exaggerated assertions without providing hard evidence to support them.
“The [company] has completely failed to demonstrate with hard facts as to why the benefits of drilling the well will outweigh the harm to local businesses and developments.”
Protect Dunsfold has also accused Surrey County Council of bias in a recent report by officials.
UKOG’s application for the wellsite, which it calls Loxley, was refused by the planning committee in June 2020. But the decision was later ruled invalid because of technical problems at the online meeting.
Since that first meeting, members of the public have sent submissions to Surrey County Council planners about UKOG’s claims.
Dr Richard Seaborne, a retired oil and gas company geophysicist, twice questioned UKOG’s comments about the benefit of the potential gas resource at Dusnfold/Loxley for national energy security during the transition to net zero emissions in 2050.
UKOG said that it was a national policy requirement to explore the potential gas resource at Dunsfold/Loxley.
But Dr Seaborne, who worked from 1979-2014 for Esso, ExxonMobil and BP, wrote to:
“express deep concern about the way that UKOG has been allowed to use unsubstantiated and generally unsupportable assertions to influence officers and members in support of its case for drilling at this site.”
His concerns were not referred to in the most recent report by officials to the planning committee, or published on the application website.
Protect Dunsfold said:
“Our other criticism of officers is that they have failed to include Dr Seaborne’s comments in their recent report with the result that in respect of the argument for need the report is biased in the applicant’s favour.”
How much gas?
In his submissions, Dr Seaborne said the official’s report should, but did not, include the potential range of volumes of gas. This would help the committee to assess the need for the Dunsfold/Loxley site, he said:
“Members of the committee are being left to make judgements about this application based on adjectives such as ‘large’ and ‘strategic’.
“To enable officers and committee members to do their job properly, UKOG should be made to provide estimates of the range of volumes of gas present. This is standard oil and gas industry practice.”
Any numbers should then be independently verified, Dr Seaborne said. He added:
“I sincerely hope that the Planning and Regulatory Committee, when it convenes to determine the re-submission of the Loxley application, will require UKOG to present hard, verified figures in lieu of the unsubstantiated and unsupportable inflated assertions that litter their material to date.
“If officers and members conclude that the Loxley well is indeed needed to access a potential strategic contribution to national energy needs let it be on justified numbers and not just unsubstantiated adjectives.”
Dr Seaborne said the gasfield did have the potential to be one of the largest onshore in the UK by relative size. But he said UKOG had not produced numbers to support this.
“There are very few commercially viable gas fields onshore UK and some of them are very small (a few bcf) so it is not hard for any discovery to be significant in terms of the small data set.”
A UKOG corporate presentation in 2018 estimated reserves from the gasfield’s Portland reservoir at 56 billion standard cubic feet (bcf). This would put the gasfield at half the size of the largest in the UK onshore at Saltfleetby, in Lincolnshire, based on its initial gas in place.
But Dr Seaborne said a map accompanying UKOG’s presentation showed that about half of the 56 bcf estimate was in the adjacent licence area, so was not available to UKOG. Another publicly-available estimate was 9.6bcf, Dr Seaborne said.
The energy consultancy, Xodus, declined in 2018 to estimate recoverable volumes from the gasfield because of “inherent uncertainties”.
But in September 2020, after Dr Seaborne’s first submission to Surrey County Council, UKOG reported that an Xodus volumetric study confirmed “a significant gas resource”. UKOG did not publish or link to the Xodus study.
“UKOG needs to explain how Xodus, with access to no new data, has been able to arrive at the numbers that UKOG proclaims with such confidence.”
Dr Seaborne questioned the reliability of subsurface maps of the gasfield, used by UKOG.
He said seismic data was “sparse and poor quality”, so there was a “high level of uncertainty” over mapping the geological structure. A map of the area by IGas, which holds the neighbouring licence area, “bears no resemblance” to the UKOG map, Dr Seaborne said.
“Since the mapping is clearly unreliable it follows that the estimates of reserves must also be unreliable.”
He also questioned whether UKOG would make money from gas at Dunsfold/Loxley by converting the methane gas to hydrogen.
UKOG’s chief executive, Stephen Sanderson, told the June planning meeting:
“we believe that this resource could potentially deliver, via hydrogen from reformulated natural gas, or simply via transitional natural gas, the energy equivalent to heat around 100,000 households per year or to power around 200,000 households per year with electricity.”
Hydrogen reformulation technology was in its infancy in the UK, Dr Seaborne said, and early trials were aimed at only 100 houses. There was no pipeline system in the Dunsfold area so UKOG would have to find a means to get the gas to market, he said.
“By drilling multiple wells or some good horizontal wells, the operator could probably deliver power for thousands of houses but not two hundred thousand, given that the relatively thin gas column and the limited areal extent of the field will constrain gas production rates. Suck the reservoir too hard and wells will start producing large volumes of water.”
DrillOrDrop invited UKOG and Surrey County Council to respond to Protect Dunsfold’s briefing paper. This article will be updated with any response.
- The Surrey County Council planning committee meets “virtually” at 10.30am on Friday 27 November 2020. The meeting is webcast. Link to meeting web page