Oil company withdraws Dorset production plans – but promises new scheme with higher output

Plans for 20 years of oil production near a historic building in Dorset have been withdrawn after limited progress in more than three years.

Impression of production phase of South Western Energy’s Puddletown site in Dorset. Source: South Western Energy Limited planning application

South Western Energy Limited (SWEL) withdrew its application in a three-paragraph email last week (24 March 2022) for a drilling site on farmland 1km from Athelhampton House and Garden near Dorchester.

The company said it could not provide additional information asked for by Dorset Council in the time given. But it said:

“We will be submitting a new application which will include the extra information requested together with some changes to the site design to cater for higher output given the geopolitical situation relating to oil and gas supplies in the UK in the future.”

SWEL had previously described the application as “a farm diversification scheme” that would generate employment and energy.

Unusually, the company sought to cover all the three phases of exploration, appraisal and production in one application. Planning regulations recommend separate applications for the different phases.

The application said it would drill a single vertical conventional oil well into the Cornbrash Bridport Sands and Sherwood Sandstone formations. Drilling and production would “not have any impact on the local community or environment being properly managed through the planning and environmental permitting procedures”, the company said.

But the Environment Agency (EA) objected twice and recommended refusal. The EA said the application did not include a risk assessment to drinking water and to a nearby chalk stream. Asked to provide one, SWEL submitted a two-page report on a water features survey. Most recently, in February 2022, the EA said:

“The applicant has not supplied adequate information to demonstrate that the risks to surface and groundwater receptors, including resources used for potable [drinkable] supplies, have been understood and can be safely managed.

“Without a risk assessment showing the contrary, the risk to controlled waters from this development are considered unacceptable”.

There was also criticism from Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust over what they said were flawed ecological assessments that accompanied the original application.

Puddletown Parish Council said the proposal would have “an adverse effect on the natural environment, biodiversity and rich wildlife”.

The application was submitted in November 2019. It was one of the first for sites in licences granted under the 14th round in 2015. No decision was made in 2020 or 2021.

There was a flurry of activity in January 2022, when six new documents were posted on the application website. They include reports, previously requested by planning officers, on the impact on heritage, ecology, hydrology, climate and restoration.

The climate change report concluded that the development, if successful, would “mitigate the degree and impact of climate change by offsetting the carbon footprint of oil imports to the UK”.

Fossil Free Dorset said in response to the conclusion “Words fail us”.

There were also recent objections from the Angling, the Bournemouth community collective Save Our Shores, Dorset Wildlife Trust and local people.

Their criticisms included inadequate climate change, risks to water, inadequate justification for the development, threat to wildlife and a failure to assess fugitive methane emissions.

Some local people were also concerned about the proposed access along a bridleway. They said it was not generally greater than 4m wide, as claimed by the application.

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