An oil company has won consent to continue the disposal of liquid radioactive waste in the South Downs National Park.
Opponents of the industry have criticised the decision, which will allow fluid from oil production to be injected into a borehole at IGas’s Singleton site, near Chichester, in West Sussex.
Philip Maber, who lives near the site, said:
“This operation seriously threatens our chalk aquifer with forever contamination and is also the biggest single source of carbon-based emissions in West Sussex.
“I feel guilty and frustrated at how little our community and country understand the urgency for change.”
The consent, granted by the Environment Agency (EA), allows IGas to inject up to 80m3 per day (more than 17,500 imperial gallons). If IGas injected the maximum every day, there would be enough liquid to fill an Olympic swimming pool in about a month.
The campaign network, the Weald Action Group, said today:
“We are deeply disappointed with the recent news that the EA has issued IGas with a permit to store and reinject radioactive waste water at Singleton.
“The site is already the biggest emitter of CO2 in the Chichester region and is now officially a hazardous waste dumping ground.
“Our chalk aquifer is vulnerable and the water and environment of the South Downs National Park should be protected not polluted.”
The permit allows IGas to dispose of formation or produced water that comes to the surface along with gas during oil extraction. At Singleton, it could contain naturally-occurring radioactive material, known as NORM.
Disposal of formation water is a major cost for the oil and gas industry and often involves regular and frequent tanker journeys to waste facilities.
Under the permit, formation water to be injected at Singleton can come from the site itself and other oil wells in southern England.
The decision regularises activities that have been going on at Singleton since 1996. It was part of a national review of permitting at older oil and gas sites under environmental regulations first introduced in 2013.
The EA said:
“We are satisfied that the permit will ensure that a high level of protection is provided for the environment and human health and that the activities will not give rise to any significant pollution of the environment or harm to human health.”
The liquid waste would be injected to a depth of about 800m into the Ashdown formation, layers of sandstones, siltstones and mudstones.
The EA said water in the Ashdown formation was saline and unsuitable for agriculture, industrial supply or drinking. It would not support springs, watercourses or wetlands and the formation could not be used for geothermal energy, the EA said.
Opponents of onshore oil and gas operations raised concerns about IGas’s plans last year during a public consultation last year.
They said water reinjection was linked in the United States to seismic activity. The Chichester area is heavily faulted and has been the centre of numerous small natural earth tremors, dating back to the 18th century.
They also said the operation threatened water quality in the chalk aquifer. At the time, the Weald Action Group said:
“Our National Parks should not be allowed to become a toxic dumping ground for radioactive waste.”
In response, the EA said:
“There is no immediate apparent viable pathways to shallower aquifers. We are therefore satisfied that the proposed discharge into the Ashdown formation will not impact on the shallower aquifers.”
The South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA), which handles planning application in the area, recently told IGas it did not have planning permission to import liquid waste from other sites for disposal at Singleton.
The company has said it does “not necessarily agree”. It told DrillOrDrop today:
“Disposal of water is an activity that is already consented at the site, with water imports being infrequent and only typically conducted when other facilities have been unavailable, for example as a result of maintenance.
“SDNPA have sought clarification from us on the import of water and we are currently in discussions with them on the matter. In the interim, we have agreed there will be no further imports while SDNPA review the matter.”
IGas said there had been no changes to the operations at Singleton or to the composition of the water.
Under the new permit, IGas has also been required to meet some site improvements. These include approval of revised plans on groundwater and air monitoring, gas and surface water management, testing the site membrane and preventing leaks from storage areas and containers. IGas said none of the improvements were associated with the radioactive substances permit.
Singleton was the UK’s second largest onshore oil producer in 2020, based on data from the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA). It extracted 2.4% of UK onshore oil, behind the top producer, Wytch Farm, on 84.3%. (The volume of oil from onshore sites was 1.58% of total UK oil production in 2020.)
The water cut – the proportion of formation water in the total fluid volume produced at a site – tends to increase as wells age. At Singleton, where planning permission expires in December 2031, OGA data shows the water cut has risen steadily for the past 10 years, from 19% in 2011 to 34% in 2020.
OGA data also shows that Singleton injected water in 19 of the past 30 years. In nine of those years, the site injected more formation water than it extracted. Since 2013, Singleton has reinjected less formation water than it produced, falling to a low of 16% in 2020.
Other sites in southern England with reinjection wells have also seen falling injection rates.
According to OGA data, there has been no recent water injection at Brockham in Surrey (last in 2018) or Horndean in Hampshire (last in 2019).
At Wytch Farm, the proportion of injected water to that produced by the field fell to 1% in 2020. In the 1990s, the field injected up to 700% of its total produced water.
Stockbridge in Hampshire and Storrington in West Sussex both began injection in 2014. But the quantities have been small (1-2% at Stockbridge and 1-5% at Storrington). Palmers Wood in Surrey has not injected water in the four months of 2021 (the most recent figures available).