Proposals to explore for oil near the village of Arreton on the Isle of Wight were refused this evening.
Councillors voted unanimously to reject the scheme by UK Oil & Gas (UKOG), against the advice of planning officers.
They said the proposal had no local economic benefits and would damage the Isle of Wight’s high-quality natural environment, which was vital to the tourist industry.
Opponents of the scheme were celebrating victory tonight after a five-year campaign against the scheme.
The decision comes less than a fortnight before the opening of international climate talks hosted by the UK in Glasgow.
It follows a series of earlier refusals this year for oil and gas developments at Balcombe in West Sussex, Springs Road, Mission in Nottinghamshire and West Newton-A in East Yorkshire.
UKOG had applied for three years of planning permission to drill vertical and sidetrack oil wells on farmland between Newport and Sandown. The scheme includes a new access road and junction with the cross-island A3056 road.
The company previously estimated there were 227 million barrels of oil beneath the Arreton area and that the site could produce 500 barrels a day.
It wanted to target oil in the Portland formation at about 900m down, as well as deeper prospects. The vertical well would be drilled to 1,700m.
UKOG has argued that domestic oil production was less environmentally damaging than importing oil. If successful, the Arreton site could generate £0.5bn, the company said.
Last week, planners at Isle of Wight Council recommended approval of the scheme, with more than 40 conditions.
Their report to today’s meeting acknowledged the “industrial-style” development would cause “material harm” to some parts of the island’s landscape. The site is close to the edge of the Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But the planners said these impacts would be temporary and would be outweighed by what were described as “substantial” economic benefits.
They said hydrocarbon developments were an “emotive issue” but national policies recognised a need for fossil fuels.
Planning team leader, Russell Chick, told the meeting that oil was of national benefit and exploration was part of the process of recovering oil for the country’s energy mix. Planning policy required councils to give great weight to the benefits of hydrocarbons when deciding applications, he said.
Mr Chick said climate change polices did not rule out the use of oil. On the possible risk to tourism, he said the Newport-Sandown road that runs past the proposed site was an attractive route. There would be harm to the surrounding landscape but the impact on it would be temporary, he said.
Opponents, who gathered outside County Hall in Newport this afternoon, said the benefits of exploration would be minimal and the scheme risked air, noise, light and water pollution.
Jon Idle, of the campaign group, Don’t Drill The Wight, described the proposal as a “terrible idea”.
He told the meeting the exploration scheme would bring negligible temporary jobs or volumes of oil.The proposal was inappropriate for the Isle of Wight and would industrialise the local landscape, they said. It was also contrary to the council’s declaration of a state of climate emergency.
“the amount that might be found would be tiny. 13 days’ worth of what the UK uses. And the amount that might be in the strata actually being tested is even less – 2 days’ supply. The idea that this contributes to our national energy security is not of ‘great weight’ – it is laughable.
“this application does not involve producing oil. If you stick to what is contained in this application, you cannot treat oil production as a benefit. This application is about building an operating hub for industrial machinery. There is no economic benefit in exploration.”
He said planning guidelines could help councillors to refuse the application:
“it produces no oil, and very few local jobs, so the supposed economic benefit does not exist. Please reject the application.”
Sylvia May, also of Don’t Drill The Wight, said UKOG had relied on out-of-date studies and not carried out detailed geological investigations:
“UKOG admits in their application that these are complex, hazardous, industrial processes, requiring up to date data sets, accurate hydro geological mapping and strata mapping to mitigate hazards and confidently plan their technical operations.
“This is usually achieved by current methods of 2-D or even 3-D geological mapping, and detailed seismic analysis.
“Given the admitted high risk to our water sources in this application, it is of particular importance. Yet UKOG has relied on outdated desk studies and not performed two-dimensional seismic strata imaging at any time – despite this being a requirement of granting this licence in 2015.
“In July 2020 a detailed report from eminent geophysicist – Dr David K Smythe was submitted directly to the planning officer with 11 points for refusal. It highlights evidence that the fuel datasets used for analysis have been misinterpreted and are 23 years out of date and that there are strata mapping inaccuracies including missing fault lines.
“These matters suggest a lack of due diligence by the applicant and impacts their analysis of mitigation measures to reduce very high levels of risk to our water sources to low.
“Worryingly there has been no detailed rebuttal of the content and key concerns of his analysis by UKOG, and none of this appears in the Officer’s report. I would ask the committee to consider the implications of this in making your decision.”
“Risks and damage not justified”
Steve Davis, a third member of the group, said:
“The application is for an industrial activity that will damage everything it touches.
“A green field used for food production in a groundwater source protection zone will become an operating hub for heavy industrial equipment.
“There will be habitat destruction. There will be air pollution from the flaring of unwanted methane gas, the operation of site machinery and the HGV movements needed to service the site.
“The release of 24,000 Tonnes of Co2 equivalent Greenhouse Gases is predicted.
“A new road junction is required just below the brow of a hill on a busy cross-island route.
“All of this contributing to the degradation of the landscape. There are solid grounds for refusal on several points.
“The limited economic benefit derived from an exploration operation does not justify either the damage or the acceptance of the risks associated with these activities. Please refuse the application.”
Arreton Parish Council, one of six parishes to object to the application, raised concerns about the impact on local road and the ferry port.
It was sceptical about the restoration proposals and the financing of the scheme. The council also said there were “many factual errors” in UKOG’s application, including the local bedrock and the length of nearby hedgerows.
Arreton said the scheme was incompatible with the island’s climate change policies and urged members to refuse permission.
The meeting heard a statement from the local county councillor, Suzie Ellis. She said she had been “elected on a pledge to stop damaging schemes like this”.
Cllr Ellis said there were sound local policy reasons to refuse the application. She urged committee members to listen to the wishes of the electorate and refuse the scheme.
The over-arching impact of climate change should not be overlooked for short-term gain, she said. The harm in this case was more significant than the benefit, she added.
A statement was also read from the council’s cabinet member for environment, Cllr Jonathan Bacon, who opposed the application. He said the country should “forge ahead” to clean energy. He said there was not sufficient justification of the economic benefit of the Arreton proposal. He said it was not sustainable development and he questioned the planners’ conclusion that new drilling did not conflict with the island’s climate change policy.
“£30m follow-on investment” at Arreton
Tonight’s meeting also heard from UKOG’s agent Nigel Moore and commercial director, Matt Cartwright.
Mr Cartwright said UKOG would invest around £6m in the Arreton scheme. It would keep spending within the island economy as much as possible. What he called “follow-on direct investment” at Arreton would be up to £30m. He said:
“The development is therefore potentially significant and beneficial for the Island economy, Island businesses and jobs.”
It would, he said, also improve UK energy security, avoid emissions from carbon intensive imports and provide UK-wide investment, jobs and tax revenues.
Mr Cartwright said 75% of energy used for transport, manufacturing and heating came from oil and gas.
“Even in the year 2050, when our carbon emissions will be at ‘net-zero’, we still expect to be using 70% of the gas we do today and 20% of the oil.
“Currently we import 36% of our energy – but this trend is increasing. By 2050 the shortfall in oil would add up to 1.9bn barrels costing the UK £110bn.
“This enormous energy deficit makes no economic sense when we have oil right under our feet. We estimate in the success case that we could produce up to 18m barrels from our IoW licence, retaining £1.3bn within the UK economy that would otherwise be lost overseas. Our proposed development is a necessary precursor to confirm commercial viability.”
He said investment in the UK energy sector was currently £19.2bn a year, supporting 145,000 high quality jobs.
If Arreton became operational, he said it would “lock-in revenues for the UK and create a new minerals sector for the Isle of Wight economy.
Relying on imports made no economic sense, he said. Oil production from Canada and Algeria generated three times the greenhouse gases of UK oil.
“By displacing imports with indigenous oil we could cut emissions by 64%, without taking account of the emissions to transport the oil to the UK.
“We should not rely on oil imports that are dirtier than ours, more expensive than ours and generate needless carbon emissions.”
Mr Cartwright said the UK’s energy mix was fragile. Renewable technologies were “still largely o the drawing board”, he said. The transition to a low carbon economy had to managed carefully, he said, to meet long-term environmental ambitions without damaging the economy.
“Indigenous oil & gas is the bridge towards the renewables that we need.”
Mr Cartwright added:
“In this transition, other countries are sourcing essential supplies closer to home. They are prioritising domestic energy over imports. The UK can do the same. We can broaden our energy base and become more resilient when the next shock or price spike comes along. Making the most of our oil & gas resources is part of that solution.”
Minimal impacts and “public good” benefits
Nigel Moore, UKOG’s planning consultant, said exploration for oil had to follow the resource. Drilling in 1952 and 1974 had confirmed a known reserve. Directional drilling would now access oil from a site that was set back from the road, screened by the landscape and part of other developments, a quarry and anaerobic digester.
Impact on the nearby Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty would be minimal, he said. Council officials had said residential amenity would be preserved and there was no conflict with local policies.
There were no objections he said from the Environment Agency, Island Roads, rights of way and ecology officials, or Natural England.
Mr Moore said oil would still be needed in 2050 as a raw material, source of power for industries which could not use renewables and an energy back-up to “keep the lights on”.
“Arreton is not about increasing our use of oil and gas; it’s about ensuring the oil and gas we know we’ll need is within our control and can be recovered responsibly.
“Arreton will help make the Island economy more resilient and help our National Government protect the price of energy to meet the domestic needs of everyone in our society.
“Arreton is development in the UK’s general interest; a public good that will benefit us all.”
Debate: where is the local economic benefit?
Committee chair, Michael Lilley, said “I find it very difficult to find any benefit to the island. I feel that the national argument,especially with what is going on in the world, difficult to understand.
“Three years could absolutely devastate our tourism industry. We are seeing much more eco tourism on this island.
“If we have something that damages that – I am very worried about that and it will affect how I vote.”
Cllr Matthew Price said approval could be a “really bad decision”:
“We can’t see any economic benefits to the Isle of Wight. I can only see negatives. The damage could be catastrophic.
“There seem to be multiple reasons for this to be refused.”
Cllr Vanessa Churchman proposed a refusal on economic grounds. There could also be damage to tourism and the roads infrastructure, she said. Environmentally it could be a disaster, she said. We don’t need to lose another field, she said.
“This site has been drilled twice before, she said. Why are we doing it all again?
“It will affect the Bembridge Trail, the views from various places. [On the site visit], it was there, in your face, we don’t need any more ‘[development] in this area.”
The island’s tourism economic was worth £550m a year, she said. “Are we prepared to put that at risk?, she asked”.
Cllr Geoff Brodie, the committee vice chair, said he would be astonished if anyone voted in favour of the application.
Cllr Warren Drew said planners had considered potential economic benefits of the scheme at production but he said the impacts on the environment had been assessed only for the three years of exploration.
Cllr Chris Quirk said the committee had to be convinced there was zero risk and there were real solutions to problems.
Cllr Martin Oliver questioned whether the planning department could monitor the 40+ conditions applied to any consent.
Cllr Christopher Jarman said UKOG’s financial statements had reduced the volume of recoverable oil at Arreton. This now amounted to two days of UK supply, he said. He also said Southern Water had identified a risk of contamination of the drinking water aquifer.
Cllr Michael Beston asked how the figure of £30m investment, mentioned by UKOG, had been calculated. Cllr David Adams said local oil exploration had not been viable in the past and he didn’t think it was viable now.
Reaction: “David can overcome Goliath”
Sylvia May, of Don’t Drill The White, said after the meeting:
“The planning officers have had a really difficult job to justify this application. But our Planning Committee were the stars of the show this evening.
“My personal thanks to each and every one. I want to thank all the original members of Frack Free Isle of Wight who started this campaign back in 2014, but particularly the current, much reduced central team, who created the Don’t Drill The Wight Campaign two years ago and made it heard.
“Our efforts over the past two years have been intensive but it proves that David can overcome Goliath and six years later we have had success. I want also to thank all of those Islanders who submitted objections including our MP Bob Seely, those that signed our petition and our members and subscribers that have stood beside us all along the way. We could not have done this without you.”
This was UKOG’s second consecutive planning application to be refused. Last year, Surrey County Council turned down its exploration plans for the proposed Loxley site near Dunsfold.
UKOG said it was disappointed by the decision. It said:
“The Company will now consider its position and whether to lodge an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate.”
The company said it had taken “considerable care” and “undertook much research to minimise the potential impact” of the site.
Its chief executive, Stephen Sanderson, said:
“This decision underscores UKOG’s change of focus over the past year towards the international arena for oil and gas, plus its new direction into geothermal and hydrogen-based energy in the UK. In accordance with the Company’s stated growth strategy, plans and evaluations are reasonably advanced in several new projects designed to grow the Company in these new areas.”
UKOG secured the licence to explore for oil on the Isle of Wight (PEDL331) in 2016. It first announced plans for oil exploration at Arreton in January 2018. The plans were unveiled in December 2019 and an application submitted three months later.
There has been previous oil exploration on this part of the island. The Arreton-1 borehole was drilled in 1952, followed by Arreton-2 in 1974. The proposed well, to be called Arreton-3, would target the same geological formations.
Reporting on this decision has been possible because of individual donations from DrillOrDrop readers