Gas company accused of “exaggerated” and “unsubstantiated assertions” about Surrey drilling plans

County councillors in Surrey are being urged not to accept their officials’ assessment of the benefits of gas exploration near the village of Dunsfold.

View from the proposed site towards High Billinghurst Farm. Photo: High Billinghurst Farm

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.”

She said:

“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.”

“Council bias”

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.”

“No numbers”

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.  

Dr Seaborne said only data from drilling or seismic surveys could confirm hydrocarbon resources. Reinterpretation of old data could “only postulate the potential of the project”, he said. 

“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.

Stephen Sanderson, UKOG chief executive, giving evidence to the June 2020 planning meeting

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

13 replies »

  1. This is a planning application not a reserves assessment. The amount of gas / hydrocarbons in place / recoverable is not relevant to the planning process. The Planning Committee are reviewing a planning application for a surface wellsite and drilling activity – the amount of gas is an issue for the applicant and the commerciality of the gas field. Not relevant to the planning process.

    • ‘We believe that this resource could potentially deliver’

      Not good enough. Loads of numbers picked out the air is not acceptable. Benefits of any application are material planning consideration. You have to prove the benefits not just state them. Cuadrilla with their 64,000 jobs springs to mind.

      If The amount of gas / hydrocarbons in place / recoverable is not relevant to the planning process then nor is this.

      “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.”

      • It should be a planning officers duty to seek independent professional advice on any major application and only then consider the weight of any benefits claimed by the applicant. Otherwise it could be a free for all for scammers and dreamers.

      • What desperate nonsense!

        So, how many eggs WILL your chickens lay, jP? Mine would potentially lay a certain number.

        An assessment is just that, and used in many planning applications. Of course, in the case of oil and gas, only one way to prove what can be extracted-DRILL!

        But, if you want to follow your route jP, then that is the end of on shore, or off shore wind, together with solar-even Mystic Meg would have difficulty accurately defining the weather for years to come. You were not able to do it even for a few days, prior to the Beast from the East, I recall. And then, the need for gas would increase! I recall that.

        So easy for you to fall into the “don’t go there” trap-and you are so good at it.

        But, not good enough, jP.

  2. I think I sense much bitterness here from a ‘NIMBY’ publication.

    The government has set out it’s national policy for this stage of the net zero 2050 program.

    Part of that is to stop new petrol & diesel car sales by 2030.

    More indiginous natural resource production not imported.

    Carbon capture & turning natural gas into hydrogen which will at least reduce CO2 gas emissions especially if all current gas boiler systems are run with a mixture of gas & hydrogen or converted to run on hydrogen.

    The UK government are leading the way in the world to have a net zero target by 2050 & are cutting the largest producers of CO2
    ( cars & gas boilers) emissions into the environment first.

    It is also helping national home owners reduce the use of oil, gas & electricity & there bills by insulating there homes & smart meters.

    From so called CO2 reduction activists? I have not heard one positive comment on these issues not even the extra production of electricity from wind power or nuclear generation.

    Talk is cheap but unfortunately the solutions are a little more complicated.

  3. Many gas boilers will be replaced as part of reaching net zero targets. No gas boilers in new build and gas boilers being replaced by heat pumps. Solar panels installed and improved energy efficiency measures all add up to less dependency on gas. Good news.

    • Think there will be many more conversions from gas boilers to hydrogen boilers/hydrogen mix boilers, KatT, so gas still required for many years to come. New build is a relatively small part of the housing mix in the UK, and is still featuring gas boilers, predominantly.

      UKOG have provided an assessment of what they believe could be produced. As Paul states that is not relevant to the planning process.

      However, if the Nimbys are really that concerned to find out whether the gas is that significant, the only way to find out is to conduct the drilling! UKOG want to determine the significance of the gas. Wonder if the fracking in Cornwall for geothermal was able to define exactly the outcome beforehand? Seems the “alternatives” have the same issues regarding assessment and delivery-but only one way to find out the reality.

  4. KatT

    All to be welcomed & this is all part of the transition which is just beginning & will continue over the next 30 years.

    There are no magic wands & even in 2050 oil & gas will still be needed in quantity in the UK.

    Many of the products not combusted & no CO2 emissions are produced this is what the refining process is all about.

    Where combustion takes place emissions are monitored & the target is net zero not no emissions!

    Wind & solar power have been around for the last 40 or 50 years why do you think that they are not the main source of power in the world today?

    Do you see the UK needing more nuclear power stations like Hinckley point especially with the new one mooted for Suffolk?

    There are many more wind farms proposed for the UK which is great but can they guarantee the continuation of supply as earlier this year there were serious power generation shortages which meant problems keeping the lights on & businesses running even with this years lower business activity due to the lack of wind power?

    The UK needs a strong energy mix. There are many challenges ahead in the next few years as stated by the Chancellor today. ‘As the current health crises hopefully See’s a resolution coming the financial crisis is only just begining.’

    This does not even take any account of Britexit & the trade effects from the end of the year of leaving the EU.

  5. The UK government’s move to renewables, if I am to believe my local Tory MP, is intended to be rapid and decisive. The assurances from BEIS are that fracked gas has no part in their future energy mix and that onshore gas overall is also on its way out because the CCC forecasts are clear that fossil fuels must be drastically reduced.
    As this is a planning application for exploration all objections must be within planning frameworks, and that includes government strategy statements as well as (although this carries less ‘weight’) the uses to which the subject of the application will be put. The immediate and local impact of any development is obviously a planning issue but it does have to look at the wider objectives and their impacts as part of its remit. An application for exploration rather than production makes the future use of the site a definite second in planning hierarchy.
    These are the limitations of the planning process which is generally skewed towards the development, any development, applied for so objections must be argued within those limits.
    (From one who has been through this shit, and come out smelling of shit)

  6. Or, to put it in context, if a farmer seeks planning to erect a house to house his/her free range hens, he/she does not have to define exactly how many eggs they will lay!

    He/she can make an assessment but many things, like fowl pest and Mr. Fox may make that assessment incorrect.

    It really is not as complicated as some would try and present.

    Gas will still be required in UK for the prosed/projected lifespan of this site. Does the UK import gas-yes, it does, so UK demand is higher than UK production. Is that likely to continue? Yes, for the proposed/projected lifespan of this site. Simples. Produce locally rather than import and then UK can return to the 0.7% quicker. Sorry Norway, you can afford to re-route some of your gas, and thus help out those requiring UKs aid, except Nimbys are inclined to ignore collateral damage of their actions-like £400k-so, you may not have to.

    • So let’s look at this, If the nimbies keep refusing projects in their areas, no wind turbines (because we can see them) and no solar farms and battery storage facilities (because they might explode)…….So are flatly refusing to contribute to climate change in their at a whilst reaping all the benefits from areas that are contributing……maybe they should pay double for the energy they happily use from the grid……they will still be using their gas guzzling vehicles, log burners and aagers, oil fired central heating etc etc…hypocrites spring to mind……I am a fair minded Yorkshire who says it as I see it…….I have just spent 5 days in hospital, GOD BLESS THE NHS

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