Council planners have supported proposals for a one-year well test at the controversial Balcombe oil site in West Sussex, which saw daily protests in summer 2013.
A planning application by the site operator, Angus Energy, will be decided by county councillors next month (2 March 2021).
More than 800 people and Balcombe Parish Council have objected to the well test plans.
They raised concerns about noise, risk of water pollution, the need for the development, greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on health, highways, amenity, wildlife and the protected landscape of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
This is the sixth planning application for a well test at Balcombe in just over a decade.
In 2020, an application for a three-year test was withdrawn when planners recommended refusal. They said that test was not in the public interest and would compromise the landscape of the AONB.
The current application has reduced the duration of the well test to 12 months. It also includes installation of a new membrane on the well pad.
The work aims to establish whether the Balcombe site is economically viable. If it is, Angus Energy has said it will apply for permission to produce oil. If oil does not flow, the well will be shut down, the company has said.
In a report published this evening, planners concluded the well test would contribute to national energy security and supply and was in the public interest.
They said there would be some adverse impacts. But these could be dealt with by planning conditions. Apart from Balcombe Parish Council, there were no objections from statutory consultees, they said.
They concluded the proposals were acceptable and recommended planning permission, with 14 conditions.
A key issue is the site’s setting in the High Weald AONB. The well test is considered to be a major development, which would normally not be allowed in an AONB unless there were exceptional circumstances.
A 40m crane would be on the site for up to 10 days and a 13.8m flare to burn waste gas would be installed for the duration of the well test. There would also be pumps, cabins and oil storage tanks onsite.
The planners said the “industrial-style operation” could affect the local countryside. But they concluded the impact would not be unacceptable. They said:
“the overall assessment is that there are exceptional circumstances and the development is in the public interest.”
The planners also said testing the Balcombe well was an “acceptable environmental option”, compared with developing a new site elsewhere in the licence area.
On traffic, the planners said the well test would increase the number of heavy lorries on local roads. During mobilisation of equipment, there would be an estimated 56 two-way lorry movements a week. But the planners said the increase would “not be significant in highways terms” and “would not result in an unacceptable impact on highway safety, or a severe impact on the road network”.
On wildlife, the planners noted that the site is next to ancient woodland and could have an impact on bats. They recommended conditions to control lighting and monitor the bats.
On water pollution, the planners said the risk to surface water would be minimised by an impermeable membrane and sealed drainage system. They said “it must be assumed” that the well had been constructed and operated to appropriate standards to protect groundwater.
Noise would be controlled by planning conditions, the planners said. The impact of the flare on air quality would be controlled by the site’s environmental permit.
- The decision will be made at a virtual meeting of West Sussex County Council’s planning committee on Tuesday 2 March at 10.30am. The meeting will be webcast. Link to agenda and reports