The life of a dormant oil site was extended today for the fourth time by councillors in West Sussex.
The Broadford Bridge site, near Billingshurst, has seen no work since March 2018 and has produced no usable oil or gas.
The extension, agreed by the county council’s planning committee, by seven to two votes with one abstention, means the site can remain suspended and unrestored until March 2024.
Another vote by the same margin allowed for the retention of cabins, gates and security fencing.
The operator, UK Oil & Gas plc (UKOG), told the committee it did not want to carry out work at Broadford Bridge in the next two years.
It said it needed the extra time to review data from its Horse Hill oil production site and a proposed gas site at Loxley, near Dunsfold, both in Surrey.
Planning permission for an exploration site at Broadford Bridge was first granted in 2013 for three years. West Sussex councillors later approved extensions totalling another four and a half years: in 2017 (one year), 2018 (18 months) and 2020 (two years).
“Potential contribution to UK energy security”
UKOG’s planning consultant, Nigel Moore, told today’s committee the proposal sought to defer restoration in order to analyse existing data. It made economic and environmental sense to analyse data in advance and avoid restoring the site prematurely, he said.
UKOG was exploring new methods of oil exploration at Horse Hill, he said. The company’s understanding of the local geology was “improving all the time”.
Mr Moore said no material effects on residents were predicted. Impacts on the environment were considered acceptable.
The British energy strategy requires better use of domestic hydrocarbons, Mr Moore said. He said Broadford Bridge could contribute to future energy security.
UKOG’s commercial director, Matt Cartwright, said nothing had changed since 2020 when the last extension was approved. But he said there had been delays to the appraisal of data by a legal challenge at Horse Hill and a planning inquiry at Loxley.
The covid-19 pandemic had shown that the UK needed speedy access to supplies of oil and gas, Mr Cartwright said. The war in Ukraine had demonstrated that the UK had neglected its energy security.
Sourcing supplies closer to home would avoid greater carbon emissions from transport, he said. Energy independence would allow the UK to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, he added. UKOG sites could be repurposed for geothermal energy, he said.
Mr Cartwright urged the committee to “keep the porch light on for Broadford Bridge.”
“UKOG has had enough time”
Dr Jill Sutcliffe, of Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green, speaking against the proposal, asked:
“How many times can a company say it’s going to restore a site, not do it and then expect to be believed when it says it again?
“Four times we have been told that the site will be restored
“‘The site is restored if no oil or gas is discovered, [and takes] 6 weeks. If nothing was found the site would be remediated.’”
“So what was found? Nothing – no viable hydrocarbon resource.”
Having found no oil or gas, the company was obliged to abandon the site and restore it to its original state, Dr Sutcliffe said. “This they have repeatedly failed to do.
The company told us the well had failed, Dr Sutcliffe said. This had been predicted and risked contaminating groundwater.
National planning policy required a site should be restored at the earliest opportunity, she said.
“This is now the earliest opportunity as those previous ones have been missed.”
Dr Sutcliffe quoted planning policy which said “Effective enforcement is important to maintain public confidence in the planning system”.
Where is the evidence that more time is needed?, Dr Sutcliffe asked. None is provided, she said. The same reasons were given last time, she said. Why does it need to be repeated?, she asked.
Dr Sutcliffe said 45% of carbon emissions must be cut in eight years to reach climate change targets. Net zero policies will have to become much tighter to achieve the targets. This could mean that Broadford Bridge site would become unviable anyway, she said.
“UKOG has had enough time in which to assess the operation of this failed well; and should pack up and restore the site.”
Dr Sutcliffe also raised concerns that enforcement action had been taken against UKOG at its site at Markwells Wood in the South Downs National Park.
“Sceptical about need”
Cllr Charlotte Kenyon, the local councillor for Broadford Bridge, said she was in favour of using domestic energy supplies. But she said she had reservations about UKOG’s application.
“This was the fourth requested extension in nine years and repeatedly extended time limits undermine public confidence in the planning system.”
“I am sceptical about the contribution of the site to UK energy needs”, Cllr Kenyon said. “It is not fully clear to me that the extension is justified”.
How long are they going to go on looking?, she asked. Will another application come forward?, she said.
There had been no discernible benefits for the site in the past nine years, Cllr Kenyon said.
“I don’t fully see the justification for restoration being further delayed”.
“Justified need for extension”
In today’s decision, the committee followed the recommendation of council planners, with 14 conditions controlling the use of the site.
James Neave, West Sussex’s principal planner, told the committee:
“there is a justified need for the proposed extension for the further appraisal of the viability of the target hydrocarbon resource through analysis of other sites that may share commonality with the target hydrocarbon discovery”.
He said a delay to restoration to farmland would “not result in any permanent impact on the locality”. He said Broadford Bridge was “of an industrial character within a rural setting”. But he said the site was not in a protected landscape and was “well-screened from public views”.
UKOG’s proposals were “acceptable in terms of landscape/character impact”, Mr Neave said. It would not result in increased traffic to the site or to activities producing noise or dust, he added. Extension would have minimal impact on people or the environment, Mr Neave said.
Cllr Sean McDonald said the site should be kept open if there was a possibility of cheaper fuel.
Cllr Sarah Sharp said she didn’t believe the Broadford Bridge site would result in cheaper oil. Hydrocarbon prices were set globally, she said. People assume onshore sites will help bring down prices, she said. But onshore sites produce much smaller amounts of oil than offshore sites, which produce most of the UK’s oil. What guarantee is there that this site will bring down prices for our residents? Onshore oil will not solve the problem overnight, she said.
Evidence was also required that the extension was needed, Cllr Sharp said. The committee must decide whether the applicant has had long enough. How much analysis has taken place over the past two years, she asked. Testing so far had not proved that the site could be productive or viable, she said.
Granting an extension would “push the decision down the road”, Cllr Sharp said. Continual extensions “made a mockery” of the use of the word “temporary”. She said West Sussex planning policy required restoration at the earliest opportunity. Can we be sure we are in line with this, she asked. If we don’t restore the site at the earliest opportunity, we lose public confidence in the planning system, she said.
Cllr Sharp also asked planners whether the committee should consider issues outside the boundary of the site, including data analysis at other sites.
She also asked why there had been far fewer objections to the latest application, compared with previous ones. There should have been a pubic liaison group to keep the local community involved. If there had, there may have been more objections, she said.
Response from planner
Planning officer, James Neave, said temporary permission can be for up to 50 year. Restoring at the earliest opportunity had to be balanced against whether there was a justifiable need for extensions, he said. Mr Neave said the application had been advertised in the same way as previous applications for extensions. The committee chair, Cllr Richard Burrett, said previous applications had attracted a lot of objections from outside West Sussex. Mr Neave said the site had not had a community liaison group and he wouldn’t recommend this as a condition.
Cllr Janet Duncton said she was happy for UKOG to have another extension for two years.
Cllr Ian Gibson said he wanted to hear more about flow rates before he could be confident about oil coming out of the area. Restoration should have begun in February 2022, he said, but the application for an extension was being considered only in May 2022. He said the committee should impose a condition that restoration should begin. Planning officer, James Neave, said he was satisfied conditions and safeguards in place were sufficient.
Cllr Simon Oakley asked how much weight should be given in the decision to the energy strategy and UKOG’s reliance on data analysis at other sites. “My patience is wearing thin with this. The restoration requirements are put there because of the harm to the countryside”, he said. Planning officer, James Neave, said the application was not for production. He said information from other sites may be relevant to Broadford Bridge.
Reporting on this decision has been made possible by donations from DrillOrDrop readers