As world leaders in Glasgow pledged this afternoon to cut carbon emissions, councillors 300 miles away blocked plans for long-term onshore oil production in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
The decision by Conservative-controlled Lincolnshire County Council coincided with the gathering of heads of state and government at the COP26 summit, hosted by Boris Johnson.
He urged the 200 nations represented at the talks to reduce emissions to limit temperature rise to 1.5C.
In a remote country house hotel near Louth, the council’s planning committee voted by 7 to 4 with two abstentions, to refuse plans by Egdon Resources for 15 years of oil extraction. They said the scheme would harm the AONB and noise from the scheme would be unacceptable.
The decision was greeted by cheers from members of the public. It went against the recommendation of council planning officers. This is the fourth consecutive refusal of UK onshore oil and gas planning applications and the fifth refusal in 2021.
The proposal at Biscathorpe in the Lincolnshire Wolds could produce almost 4 million barrels of oil, the company has estimated.
A recent report concluded this would generate 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Opponents have said the carbon emissions in one year would be nearly ten times the council’s entire carbon saving target for 2023.
Egdon has applied to drill a sidetrack well at the Biscathorpe site to target the Westphalian sandstone and deeper Dinantian Carbonate. It has estimated there could be up to 30 million barrels of oil in the formations.
Climate change objections
There have been more than 200 local objections to the scheme and a petition against it with more than 1,800 signatures this afternoon.
Opponents included the local MP and justice minister, Victoria Atkins, as well as Lincolnshire Climate Commission, the countryside charity CPRE, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and five parish councils closest to the site. In some villages there was overwhelming opposition to the scheme.
Many people who objected to the application said oil production at Biscathorpe was incompatible with local and national policy on climate change.
Donington-on-Bain parish council drew attention to Lincolnshire’s 2019 carbon management plan in which the county council said it was “determined to play a full part in delivering on hour collective responsibility to reduce carbon emissions”.
Lincoln Climate Commission quoted a report in May 2021 by the International Energy Association in which it concluded “from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects” if the world is to limit temperature rise to 1.5C.
But Egdon Resources argued that domestically-produced oil has a lower carbon footprint than imported oil. The UK would continue to need oil and gas during the transition to a low-carbon economy, the company said.
A report by council planners for today’s meeting said production from the new Biscathorpe sidetrack well was consistent with current government objectives on climate change.
Officials told councillors they needed to consider only the potential impacts of carbon emissions arising directly from the proposed development, not from the use of any oil produced. This issue is the subject of a legal challenge at the court of appeal in a fortnight.
Councillors urged to “lead by example”
Speaking against the application, retired army major Nick Bodian urged the committee to “show real leadership”. He urged them to:
“set aside the narrow confines of current planning policies and make the brave decision that your constituents and the country demand at this critical time.
“You must reject this and any future plans to extract fossil fuels in this green and pleasant land.”
Mr Bodian, chair of the community liaison group for oil drilling at Biscathorpe and a member of the local campaign group SOS Biscathorpe, said council environmental policy aimed to “lead by example”. He said:
“Here, on the first day of COP 26, you have an opportunity to do just that. The question is, will you? Will you allow 15 years of oil production in our AONB and take a backward step in the fight to save our planet or will you fulfil your own stated objective?
“There is an urgent imperative to translate rhetoric into action and stop any further fossil fuel extraction.”
Mr Bodian said there would be “no benefits to the local community” from the scheme.
“Aside from the substantial negative impacts on our AONB, tourism will suffer and the stress on the community continue for another 15 years.
“The Biscathorpe site will contribute a miniscule amount of oil to our country (only 0.03% of UK consumption). The carbon emissions it will produce in just one year are equivalent to nearly TEN times LCC’s entire carbon saving target for 2023, and that’s without including the emissions involved in getting it from well to wheel and any methane flaring that may occur. How can that justify the harm to our AONB?”
He said to reach its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the UK needed to put all its efforts into “truly sustainable energy”. He added:
“Be under no illusion that this ends with Biscathorpe. New sites are often developed within and close to existing operations. If you give the green light at Biscathorpe you risk a proliferation of oil-sites across the Wolds.”
He also questioned why the council had not asked for more information from Egdon about its plans because the company had not addressed issues raised during the consultation:
“Egdon have not yet completed exploration, they have not hit oil, but they are asking you to approve 15 years of production. Using what methods? We do not know. Vagueness in the application regarding the methods of production are extremely worrying.”
“No need for more oil”
Hugo Marfleet (Conservative), one of the county councillors for Biscathorpe, accused the planners of producing a biased and misleading report.
He told the committee, there were plenty of existing oil wells offshore. There was no need to redrill for more oil, he said. If we carry on accelerating climate change there is a risk of huge flooding to parts of Lincolnshire on the east coast, he said.
He said the prime minister had said oil extraction was a local decision. So we can make a decision, he said.
The Biscathorpe well would not improve energy security in the UK, he said. If we rely on one little well in the Wolds we are in real trouble, he said.
The way forward is renewable energy, he said. The Biscathorpe proposal offered no local benefits, no local jobs and no local prosperity, he said. I believe this is the wrong application. This is local democracy. I am saying no to protect the Wolds and Lincolnshire.
Another local county councillor, Stephen Bunney (Lib Dem), said he also supported local opponents on this applications.
It is imperative that we set an example to the International Energy Agency’s advice against all new fossil fuel developments. There needed to be large reductions on carbon emissions to reach net zero by 2050, he said.
Cllr Bunney said the company’s estimated ranged from nearly 4 million barrels to 30 million barrels. This would have no impact on energy security, he said.
The jobs benefits for local people would be minimal, he said.
Many of the reasons for objection were material planning arguments, he said. There could be impacts on local tourism.
The potential miniscule reserves, small job creation and potential impact on environment meant that the application should be refused, he said.
National planning policy says major applications like the Biscathorpe scheme should be refused unless there were exceptional circumstances and the scheme was in the national interest.
East Lindsey district council said Egdon Resources had not demonstrated that the Biscathorpe application met this planning hurdle. Other opponents said there would be no benefit locally or nationally from the scheme.
The UK currently uses about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day so, based on company predictions of 4 million barrels, Biscathorpe would meet national needs for less than three days. If the oil formations produced 30 million barrels, this would provide 20 days’ supply.
Mark Abbott managing director of Egdon Resources, told the committee national energy policy was aimed at reducing carbon emissions. But he said there was no policy to stop use of oil. Net zero emissions in 2050 would not result in an economy that was carbon free.
Oil would continue to be needed and use up to and beyond 2050, he said. Oil was an important industrial feedstock. Biscathorpe would not increase use of oil but it would help to reduce oil imports.
There will be environmental impacts from any oil drilling, Mr Abbott said. The company had worked hard with officials to reduce these impacts, he said. There were concerns about pollution from the site reaching the River Bain, he said. But this would be prevented by regulations, he said. There would be enhancements to biodiversity which would be lasting, he said. There would be benefits to the local community. He hoped planning permission would be granted.
Council planners had concluded “there is a national need for the development which would therefore be in the public interest nationally”. Though small in comparison to offshore oil production, the planners said, the proposal would “make a valuable contribution” to meeting national need.
Neil McBride, the head of planning, said the government continued to support the production of fossil fuels. There was no government guidance on what minimum level of oil would make it nationally important. He said a previous planning inquiry had concluded that two-four days would contribute to energy security. He urged the committee “to steer away from emotive issues like climate change”.
Egdon said the scheme would create up to 36 fulltime (of which 12 would be in Lincolnshire) and seven parttime jobs during the drilling phase. During production, this would fall to a maximum of 14 full and parttime jobs.
During production, the company promised to donate £50,000 a year to a community fund and estimated it would pay business rates of £50,000-£100,000.
Cllr Robert Reid said no climate legislation helped the committee. There was no solid climate ground for refusal, he said. He recommended refusal on the grounds that it failed to comply with local planning policy.
Cllr Nigel Pepper said 15 years of oil production was just a temporary application.
Cllr Thomas Ashton, the committee vice chair, described the proposal as an “emotive issue” for local people. But he said he was not convinced there were policy grounds to refuse the application. Climate policy had not caught up, he said. The country will be reliant on fossil fuels for year to come, he said. The potential impacts of the proposal did not amount to sufficient harm to justify a refusal. He recommend approval but this was rejected by six votes to three.
Cllr Marianne Overton said councillors already had the tools to refuse the application because it would be an unwanted visual intrusion in the AONB.
Cllr Alison Austin said could not support the application. She was disappointed by the small number of jobs generated by the development, she said. I acknowledge we need oil, even in a low carbon economy, she said. But the amount of oil from this proposal would be very small. This means the benefits do not outweigh the potential impact. She also said she was concerned about the impact on local chalk streams.
Cllr Susan Blackburn said there was not enough to gain from the proposal and called for the application to be refused. She said the reasons included the effect on the AONB, and the impacts on noise, lighting and biodiversity.
Cllr Ian Carrington said there was no evidence of exceptional circumstances to justify the application, as required by planning policy. What is it that qualifies the proposal to be exceptional, he asked. Mr McBride said the national need for oil justified the application.