A tree planting scheme on the site of a former oil site in the South Downs National Park has failed.
UK Oil & Gas plc (UKOG) said it planted 2,000 trees and shrubs in 2020 at the Markwells Wood site, north west of Chichester.
But two years on, most of the saplings have died and much of the site is overgrown.
National park officials have now ordered UKOG to replant in the next few weeks. And local people have asked for soil sampling to check whether the site is contaminated.
The Markwells Wood site is in an area of ancient woodland and tree planting was a key part of the restoration work required by the site’s planning permission. Another condition imposed a five-year aftercare programme to ensure restoration was successful.
A spokesperson for the South Downs National Park Authority said:
“Our officers have checked the site and many of the whips have failed, as can happen with replanting schemes.
“We have informed the operator and they are undertaking the replanting this season.
“The site will continue to be monitored by the Authority’s Minerals and Waste Team as part of the agreed aftercare scheme.”
A 1km access track to Markwells Wood has been removed and is no longer visible. But on the 0.5ha well pad, many of the plastic tree guards contain just the support stake or dead saplings.
Markwells Wood Watch, a group which campaigned against oil operations at the site, has been monitoring the restoration.
A spokesperson for the group told DrillOrDrop:
“We are concerned that the replanting of Markwells Wood has failed. The most successful plants on the site are weeds and we fear that the soil could have been contaminated by the drilling activity. This is why we have asked for soil tests to be carried out before any new trees are planted.
“This is disappointing for two reasons; UKOG has again demonstrated a lack of environmental credentials and this failure has further delayed much needed carbon capture”.
The tree planting was carried out in January 2020. This was 18 months after the South Downs National Park Authority issued an enforcement notice to UKOG to abandon and restore Markwells Wood.
The Markwells Wood Watch spokesperson said:
“If our experience is typical, there appears to be no effective, independent monitoring of the decommissioning of onshore wells in the UK.
“The Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive rely on the contractor to do a proper job. This is not good enough, especially in an environmentally sensitive area such as Markwells Wood, which sits above an aquifer that is the source of fresh water for many thousands of people.”
DrillOrDrop invited UKOG to comment but it did not respond.
The tree planting failure is the latest stage in a drawn-out process of decommissioning Markwells Wood.
The site was first granted planning permission in 2009. A single well was drilled in November 2010 but never went into production. Planning permission was later extended in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
In September 2016, 10 days before the most recent permission expired, UKOG submitted an application for further drilling and 20 years of hydrocarbon production.
This application attracted a large number of objections, including from the Environment Agency and Portsmouth Water, which said the proposals could pose an unacceptable risk to groundwater.
In May 2017, UKOG withdrew the application. It promised scaled-back proposals but lost its access right to the site.
Nearly two years later, the company confirmed in a statement to investors it had pulled out of Markwells Wood.
It told the South Downs National Park that the well had been plugged and abandoned on 14 January 2019.
But another 12 months went by before the tree planting work began. The replacement planting will now be three years after plugging and abandonment.