A proposed gas exploration site near the Surrey village of Dunsfold could be there for years, even though the planning application is for 36 months, a public inquiry has heard.
UK Oil & Gas is defending its proposals for a wellpad at Loxley, which was refused consent by Surrey County Council in November 2020.
The council’s planning witness was asked this morning how long local people should envisage the exploration site to be in place if the company won its appeal.
Richard Hunt replied:
The online inquiry heard that UKOG was seeking temporary consent for site construction, exploration, appraisal and restoration.
If drilling were successful, the company has said it would seek permission for gas production. Time had been set aside in the retention phase of the project’s current programme, UKOG said, to make a production application.
The company has also said there would be no point in restoring the site at the end of exploration and appraisal if Loxley were to go into production.
But Mr Hunt told the inquiry the process for applying for production was likely to exceed the time allowed for it in the retention phase.
The current application had taken 18 months to come before the council’s planning committee, he said. A production application would have different impacts and would need a more detailed analysis to justify that the Loxley site was suitable. The process could take five years, he said.
Mr Hunt said:
“There is no current justification for the retention of the site beyond the exploration and appraisal phases as that retention is based on the testing phase which may prove to be ‘sub-commercial’ in the same way that other nearby exploration has.”
Asked about the UKOG proposal, Mr Hunt described it as “an unsatisfactory site which has not been justified through consideration of the impact on the local economy”.
He said UKOG’s site selection had “not been robust” and there was “insufficient information” on alternative sites. The application did not comply with planning policy, he said, because it had an “unacceptable impact on highway safety”.
20 months or 36 months?
Surrey County Council argued today that the Loxley work programme, including restoration, could be completed in 20 months, just over half that time that UKOG sought.
Jenny Wigley QC, for the council, told the company:
“You have built in too much contingency.”
UKOG said it had allowed for delays and it needed time to decide whether the site should go forward to production.
The company’s operations director, Kris Bone, said 20 months was “insufficient”:
“It is the unknowns that can eat into the time of your permission”.
“it is necessary to allow additional time for procurement delays incurred during the preparation of tenders, the tendering process and final tender evaluation.
“In addition, the process of contract preparation, execution and award can also be a cause for unforeseen delay.”
He added that UKOG might need to do more seismic testing between drilling the first well and a proposed sidetrack off it.
He also said the rig market was “fluid” and the company would not sign a contract on a rig until the site had been constructed. There were just three or four rigs in the UK that would be considered for Loxley.
David Elvin QC, for the company, said planning officers had not been concerned about the application’s duration.
Mr Bone responded in his evidence to issues raised by local organisations and residents.
Waverley Borough council said the “true nature of the proposed drilling operation” had not been fully clarified. Mr Bone said: “for the avoidance of doubt, the proposed development does not require or involve hydraulic fracturing”.
Hascombe Parish Council raised concerns about drilling waste, acidisation and earthquakes. Mr Bone said there was nothing to indicate that the impacts from the Loxley site were any different or worse than those “acceptably accommodated in the past. On acidisation, he described it as a “standard well technique used to initiate, enhance and maintain flow by engaging low volume and low pressure acetic acid”. On seismicity, he said “I understand that tremors are not a matter for the planning process to resolve”.
The parish council and local people had said there had been releases of hydrogen sulphide when a nearby well at Godley Bridge had been drilled. Mr Bone said: “mitigation embedded and committed by the proposed development will ensure that hydrogen sulphide is appropriately managed and monitored”.
Mr Bone was asked about the risks of drilling at Loxley, which was described by the company yesterday as “by no means ideal”
“There are risks whenever you drill a well. The engineering reduces risks – that is the remit of the HSE [Health and Safety Executive] and not the remit of planning.”
Impact on garden village
Patrick Arthurs, for Waverly Borough Council, said planning permission should be refused because the benefits were “negligible” and did not outweigh the harm from the scheme.
He said the proposal could affect the viability of Dunsfold Garden Village that has been granted planning permission and was a key part of the borough’s housing strategy:
“Environmental searches conducted on behalf of prospective purchasers of property in the area by their legal advisors are already being alerted to the prospect of onshore oil and gas exploration and production.”
He also said the proposals would encroach on the Dunsfold travellers’ site:
“The poor neighbour activity proposed would result in an adverse impact on Waverley Borough Councils traveller’s accommodation strategy.”
UKOG’s site restoration history
The inquiry also heard that UKOG had claimed a “history of sensitive site selection, responsible management and a high standard of site restoration”.
Surrey County Council said the company had breached a planning condition in 2018 when it failed to restore the Markwells Wood site in the South Downs National Park by the agreed time.
Loxley resident Ashley Herman, who has the closest home to the site, said UKOG had over-stated the distance from his house. The company said it was 350m but he said he had measured 237m. He asked Mr Bone about what machinery would be installed closest to his home. Mr Bone said he could not answer that question.
- The inquiry resumes at 9.30am on Thursday 5 August 2021 with the final planning witness, Nigel Moore for UKOG