Proposals to explore for oil on farmland on the Isle of Wight have been supported by council planners despite potential environmental harm.
A report, published today, recommends approval of a planning application by UK Oil & Gas (UKOG).
The scheme, proposed for three years near the village of Arreton, is due to be decided by Isle of Wight Council next week.
Six parish councils and the local MP have opposed the plans. The local campaign group has said there have been more than 3,400 public objections.
Council planners acknowledged that the proposals would result in an “industrial-style development” in an area that was “predominantly undeveloped”.
Their report said the “mix of industrial equipment, fenced compound and access road” would, from some directions, “cause significant landscape and visual impacts that would result in material harm”.
But they said these impacts would be temporary and would be outweighed by what they described as the “substantial” economic benefits” of the proposals.
The report said locally there would be “relatively minor economic benefits”. But exploration and testing for hydrocarbons would, it said, contribute to providing for national energy needs.
UKOG’s application is not for production and, if oil were found, a separate planning application would be needed. Opponents of the scheme have said estimates of recoverable oil from the site represented 10 days of UK oil consumption.
The local MP, Bob Seely, said the proposal was inappropriate and conflicted with the Isle of Wight’s economic aims. He said oil development would threaten tourism, worth £520m a year, as well the island’s conservation status and identity as a national leader in sustainability.
The planners concluded there was a “a national need for fossil fuels” and the proposal would not “conflict with the climate change agenda”
They said the Isle of Wight’s declaration of a climate emergency and its new Climate and Environmental Strategy did not ban proposals for fossil fuel extraction.
UKOG wants to drill one vertical and one sidetrack well at Arreton. They would explore for oil in the Portland limestone and other deeper formations. The application does not include high volume hydraulic fracturing.
The 1.4ha site, which has never been developed, is on St Georges Down, close to the edge of the Isle of Wight area of outstanding natural beauty. It is 300m from the A3056 road from Newport to Sandown and next to a public bridleway.
The proposal includes a new access road and junction with the A3056 and a level site platform, parts of which would be 5m below existing ground levels.
When operating, UKOG has estimated that the site would generate up to 15 two-way lorry movements a day. It would be surrounded by 3m high security fencing. Equipment would include seven 3m high containers, storage and fuel tanks, generators, a 12m ground flare and a propane gas tank. The drilling rig would be up to 38m high.
The planners’ report said there had been 1,064 objections from members of the public. But the campaign group, Don’t Drill The Wight, said there had been more than 3,400 objections.
The council said the public concerns included:
- Contrary to local and national climate change strategies and local planning policies
- Damage to the special qualities of the area and local wildlife
- Inappropriate greenfield site
- Industrialisation of the Arreton area
- Noise, light, air and water pollution
- Danger to pedestrians and horse riders where the access track crosses a right-of-way
- Potential impact on water supplies
- Impact on local roads and traffic
- Recoverable oil is the equivalent to 10 days of UK oil consumption
- Limited benefits to the local economy
- Fracking may be needed later
There were also objections from parish councils at Arreton, Whitwell, Rookley, Fisbourne, Newchurch and Godshill.
Arreton Parish Council’s concerns included loss of hedgerows, impact of lighting, water contamination and its disposal, and the impact on the village and school. The council said the application appeared to be counter to council aims for carbon neutrality and minimising waste.
Whitwell parish council said the scheme contradicted the Isle of Wight Council’s approach to the area of outstanding natural beauty and the island biosphere designation. Approval of the application would preclude National Park status, it said.
Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust objected because of risks of pollution to the River Yar and a nearby site of special scientific interest.
The first version of the application prompted objections from local highways officials and concerns from Isle of Wight council staff responsible for trees, wildlife and rights of way. Since changes were made to the scheme, there have been no objections from Isle of Wight Council officials.
There were also no objections from the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive, Southern Water and the partnership managing the area of outstanding natural beauty. Natural England and Historic England made no comments.
The planners’ report said there were 70 comments in support of the scheme. The reasons included:
- Continued need for hydrocarbons and energy self-sufficiency
- Bridge the gap towards more renewable energy sources
- Lower environmental impact than imports
- Provision of local employment
- Temporary with minimal visual impact
Conclusions on impacts
The planners’ report said the development would not cause a “material change to the special quality of the AONB [area of outstanding natural beauty]”.
It would have “harmful landscape impacts” – putting it in breach of local policies – but these impacts would be temporary only, the report said.
The top of the rig would show up above the summit of St Georges Down. But the planners said there would be minimal landscape or visual impacts to the north, north east and north west.
From other viewpoints, particularly nearby, the planners said site equipment would be “relatively imposing and obvious additions to the landscape”, incongruous”, “industrial in nature” and “at odds with the surrounding rural landscape”.
They disagreed with UKOG’s assessment that views of the site from the A3056 road would be “fleeting” and “minor adverse”. The planners’ concluded that the impact of the site from this point and from two nearby footpaths would result in significant harm for a temporary period.
The report said there would be “little scope for mitigating the harm”. The design was considered “appropriate”, despite a policy requirement for “high quality design for all development”.
On tourism, the report said the proposal would have limited and temporary impacts on the surrounding countryside and it would not “compromise the tourism industry for the Island”.
The planner’s report also concluded:
Archaeology: The site would not compromise archaeological remains at the site
Acid deposition: At St Georges Down, these levels would below those considered insignificant
Access road: These plans“meet highway guidance”
Air pollution: This would be “localised to the wellsite” and “would have no impact on human exposure” at the nearest homes.
Arreton conservation area: No adverse impact
Asbestos: Sample of asbestos found on the proposed site and a pre-construction asbestos survey is needed
Cumulative impacts: No cumulative impacts on ecology or waste management
Ecology: Removal of hedgerow along the A3056 could harm nesting or hibernating dormice. This work would be done under a Protection of Species Mitigation Licence and overseen by an ecologist to avoid disturbing dormice. No impact on badgers, bats. Mitigation would include hedge planting, grassland and wildflower seeding, native tree planting, creation of log piles and installation of five nesting bird boxes and five bat boxes.
Flaring: Volumes of gas to be burnt would be limited to 10 tonnes per day under an environmental permit
Flood risk and groundwater: The proposals comply with local and national policies on flooding. “Adequate protection to groundwater pollution has been provided by the applicant”, the planners said. They added that the Minerals Planning Authority could rely on other regulatory regimens to operate effectively.
Heritage: No cumulative impacts
Lighting: Unlikely to cause a statutory nuisance and the distance from the site to nearby properties would “provide significant mitigation”
Listed buildings: Minimal or no impact
Noise from site: Levels would be above current background but the effects could be “satisfactorily limited” by conditions
Noise from vehicles: The impact would be “negligible” if vehicles visited the site in daytime only
Restoration scheme: This is considered “acceptable” and would restore the site to current agricultural use and provide landscape and ecological enhancements.
Rights of way: “The safety of pedestrians is unlikely to be affected” where the access and bridleway cross. But “very careful consideration would need to be given to the safety of horse riders and to an extent, that of cyclists”.
Roads: The proposal would “not have a negative impact on the operation of the local or wider highway network in terms of capacity”. An increase in potential accidents on the A3056 is not anticipated.
Site selection process: This was suitable and complied with local planning policies
UNESCO Biosphere designation: The scheme was “not considered to have an unacceptable impact on trees or protected species and would result in socio-economic benefits”. It would not “compromise the designation, which is focused on allowing sustainable development to take place”.
Wildlife sites: “It is considered that the proposed development would not result in significant impacts on European sites, either alone or in combination with other plans and projects.”
The planners recommended approval with 43 conditions on issues such as traffic management, construction of the access road and junction, lorry movements, noise, lighting, restoration and rights of way.
The local campaign group, Don’t Drill The Wight, said:
“We are disappointed that the planning officer has supported the application, given the level of community objection.
“The decision has come at a crucial point, since confirmation by the IPCC and the recently published report from London University, which state that 60% of existing known resources should remain unharvested, and no new oil & gas wells should be drilled, if we are to have any chance of halting our rapid acceleration towards a 1.5 degree increase in global temperature.
“We understand that our mineral planning authority will have a very difficult decision to make, given pressures from the government for continued support of the fossil fuel industry.
“There is some consolation in the fact there are considerable conditions in place, but sadly we feel that this is not enough and that there are some omissions in key statements and information presented in this report.”
The application is due to be decided at a meeting on Tuesday 19 October 2021 at 4pm in the council chamber, County Hall, Newport, Isle of Wight. The meeting will be videoed and broadcast live.
A link to the meeting video will be added to the committee’s webpage 24 hours before the meeting
DrillOrDrop will report on the meeting and the decision.