Villagers launch court challenge over Balcombe oil test

Residents have submitted their legal case over an extended test at the Balcombe oil site in West Sussex.

Protests outside the Balcombe oil exploration site in 2013. Photo: DrillOrDrop

Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association (FFBRA) served papers at the High Court yesterday (27 March 2023).

The campaign group is seeking a statutory review to overturn the decision by a planning inspector last month to grant planning permission.

The inspector argued that the test, designed to assess whether the Balcombe site would be commercially viable, was in the national interest.

The legal challenge centres on the impact of the test on the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which includes Balcombe and the well site at Lower Stumble.

Two years ago, West Sussex planning committee unanimously refused the proposal. Councillors decided there were no exceptional circumstances to justify the test in the AONB.

Residents said today they were concerned that during the test gases would be burnt in a flare 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 350m from the nearest homes.

Heavy traffic would pass the village school, they said, and there would be a pollution risk to the River Ouse and the drinking water reservoir at Ardingly. The group also opposed continuing reliance on fossil fuels in a climate emergency.

Launch of legal action, March 2023. Photo: DrillOrDrop

The Brighton Pavilion MP, Caroline Lucas, who was arrested at protests in Balcombe in 2013 and later acquitted, said:

“This outrageous decision [by the planning inspector] flies in the face of local people, the local county council and the most basic climate common sense.

“How this major oil drilling development can be considered to be ‘in the public interest’, when it risks destroying precious natural habitats, creating air, water, noise and light pollution and contravening our crucial climate targets, is beyond comprehension.

“The Planning Inspectorate must open its eyes, acknowledge the evidence and reverse this shameful overruling.”

Balcombe resident, Malcolm Kenward, said:

“The inspector’s decision is based on the perceived significant need for onshore hydrocarbon exploration and assessment for considerable time to come.

“In total, the UK exported over 26 times as much crude oil as was produced onshore. It is therefore highly likely that much of the UK’s landward crude oil production is exported, achieving the exact opposite of the flimsy justification for this decision.

“It would seem that cutting UK oil exports would do far more for improving UK energy security than invading an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for potentially a few thimbles full of oil.”

Residents’ case

The legal action is the latest stage in 10-years of opposition to oil operations in Balcombe.

There were daily protests during the summer of 2013 when the fracking company, Cuadrilla, drilled an exploratory well. Since then, operation of the site has transferred to Angus Energy.

FFBRA, through its solicitors, Leigh Day, argues that the inspector’s decision to approve the test was unlawful on six separate grounds.

The group’s case is that the inspector:

  • Acted irrationally by taking into account only the benefits of the future extraction of hydrocarbons at Balcombe
  • Unlawfully interpreted local policy on onshore oil and gas (M7 in the West Sussex minerals plan)
  • Unlawfully failed to consider alternatives to the development in the AONB
  • Unlawfully failed to consider the impact of the development on climate change
  • Unlawfully failed to assess (or take into account an assessment) of the impact on water resources

The group also argues that West Sussex County Council unlawfully failed to comply with planning rules on environmental impact assessments (EIA). It made two errors in its decision that the scheme did not need an EIA, FFBRA said, because it did not consider:

  • whether the test was part of a wider project
  • and what would be the environmental effect of emissions

The case names three defendants: the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, Angus Energy Weald Basin No. 3 Limited and West Sussex County Council.

Under the inspector’s conditions, the extended well test must begin within three years of the date of the permission.

This means Angus Energy can return to the site at any time up to February 2026. The test must be completed within 12 months from the start of work. 12 months after the completion of the well test, the site must be restored.

FFBRA has collected more than £5,000 in a crowd-funding campaign. It is seeking to raise £35,000 to cover the cost of the challenge.

10 replies »

  1. Not sure that the name of the organization helps to instill any confidence they have any clue regarding the process. Perhaps if the case centres on the impact, then maybe the process is significant?

  2. I raise you, £200B new nuclear, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, when the wind doesn’t blow.

    • 2022 global costs related to climate-related disasters:
      $100 billion – September – Hurricane Ian (Cuba and USA)
      $30 billion – June – floods in Pakistan
      $20 billion – Summer – drought and heatwave across Europe
      $8 billion – Summer – drought in China

      The rest of the top 10 each cost at least $3 billion.

      The human costs – 7 million displaced in Pakistan, 1700 dead. Excess deaths in UK summer – 3,000

      These costs are for a single year and will almost certainly increase as we go on.

      • Ahh, so no more droughts, hurricanes or floods if climate is “managed”. Good luck with. I really ought to tell Noah, and the Egyptians or those who remember more recently, more locally, the summer of 1976-or the winter a decade earlier! All that can be hoped is that UK does not suffer another flood or hurricane, which it has done historically, otherwise goodness knows what that would be attributed to.

        However, when there are hurricanes or floods it seems to me, when the electricity distribution is trashed, then there are an awful lot of people relying upon fossil fuel to get the rescue underway, the healthcare and food distributed and the rebuild done. Plus the electricity distribution to be rebuilt ready to be trashed again. Perhaps some of that Balcombe oil, which apparently is going to be exported, will be doing just that? If it didn’t what would the antis like? To abandon them to their fate? Well, there are statistics available for survival rates following natural disasters and they make very interesting reading endorsing the very efficient systems now operating compared to when such assistance could not be mobilized.

        The reason I do not read the Guardian. Similar reason why I smile at Frack Free. There is more proof common sense is not that common. Outside of the Internet, it really is reasonably common. Mainstream media should take note, rather than just copy.

  3. It’s complete and utter madness. The legislation is backward and biased in favour of vested interests, and complicit decision-makers seem disconnected from the science, public opinion and the consequences of their actions. Shameful.

  4. Good that FIBRA are going to court rather than blocking roads, abusing oil well staff etc.
    If FIBRA wins at Judicial Review it will presumably expect the losers to respect the judgement.
    If FIBRA lose will they respect the judgement? ( unlike their actions after the previous failed J. Review).

    • You seem to forget that whenever county councils (as mineral planning authorities) say “no”, the oil industry never accepts the verdict. Even when inspectors at Planning Appeals say “clear up and go home” they hang in there, delaying and resubmitting long after deadlines have passed. Despite not being wanted by local communities, despite having no social licence, the oil industry hang on like leaches.

      • Either party may appeal a judicial decision.
        The rule of law breaks down if one party simple “blames the ref” & calls out the mob.
        Let us hope all sides stick to civilised arbitration.

  5. You supply the social licence, alex, by maintaining the demand! Perhaps you need to apologize to FFIBRA, except they would be too busy to notice, whilst they apologized to each other.
    If you are so against the “leaches” then don’t use them.

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