The communities secretary, Michael Gove, has blocked two shale gas schemes in south Yorkshire and Cheshire. But ministers gave the go-ahead for gas drilling at Dunsfold.
Local people, pressure groups the borough and the county councils are fuming at the decision which affects the Dunsfold Road, near the bend aptly named Pratts Corner!
However, the Inspector accepted the need.
There were 44 billion cubic feet of gas, possibly 70 billion, – which would make Dunsfold the second-largest gas accumulation in the UK’s on-shore history.
UK Oil & Gas is “delighted” with the decision.
According to Protestor group Drill or Drop-In each case elsewhere, ministers recovered the appeals and made the final decision, rather than the inspector at the inquiry.
But Michael Gove had ‘recused’ himself from the controversial decision on the Dunsfold Loxley scheme, which is near his constituency and in the constituency of SW Surrey’s wannabe Prime Minister Jeremy Hunt.
Local communities have waited for more than two years for the decisions on the Woodsetts and Ellesmere Port inquiries. A decision at Dunsfold’s Loxley had been awaited for over a year.
Waverley Friends of the Earth said:
“We are appalled by today’s decision by Government Ministers to give the go ahead for fossil fuel drilling in Dunsfold. It is absolutely the wrong decision. This scheme will do nothing to alleviate current high energy prices linked to the oil and gas market, and the climate crisis makes it imperative that we get out of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. We should be focusing on reducing energy consumption and investing massively in renewables. Giving this development the green light is just another example of the UK Government reneging on the climate commitments they made at COP26”.
The Inspector demolished the arguments put forward by the parish, borough and the county councils opposing the scheme. He argued the expansion of the UK’s gas capacity was a matter of national priority and that the Dunsfold appeal would meet Government energy policy. It was critical the UK retained good access to gas. It had been known since the l980s of the Loxley Gas deposits, and a licence had permitted UKOG to seek minerals for 30 years. It was up to the operator to determine whether finds were commercially viable.
UKOG’s controversial plans to drill vertical and horizontal wells to explore for gas at Loxley on land owned by Ashley Ward had been refused twice by Surrey County Council in 2020.
Former Alfold resident Mr Ward has also applied for two controversial planning applications – one for a larger home on the Loxley Land and another for a cattle finishing station. Now he will have a drilling platform in his back garden and so will his near neighbours including The proposed Dunsfold Garden Village. The sale of which is languishing in the doldrums with Trinity College Cambridge.
The government followed the recommendation of the inspector, Mike Robins, to allow the UK Oil & Gas (UKOG) appeal and grant planning permission.
The inquiry, held online in July and August 2021, centred on the impacts of the scheme on the nearby Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), climate change and local roads and businesses.
Today’s 156-page report admitted there would be a:
“significant level of landscape and visual impacts from the proposal” on the surrounding landscape and it would “degrade the quality of the setting of the AONB”.
But the government said the effects would be short term and there would be only limited effects on the AONB itself.
Objectors argued that UKOG had not demonstrated that the site had been selected to minimise adverse environmental impacts, so it conflicted with local policy.
The Inspector said noise from the site would not affect some nearby homes and businesses. But moderate weight should be given to the impact on the wedding venue at nearby High Billingshurst Farm.
On traffic, the government concluded there would not be
“any significant adverse impacts on highway safety or the effective operation of the highway network”.
It said exploration was a necessary precursor to extraction and great weight should be given to the benefits of gas exploration and appraisal. He said limited weight should be given to the benefits of local jobs and spending.
It dismissed the impact of the scheme on the nearby Dunsfold Park housing development, even though exploration would be carried out under the garden village site.
The permission comes with 32 planning conditions. They cover issues such as the duration of the permission (three years), hours of operation, traffic management, noise and vibration, lighting, ecology and restoration.
UKOG chief executive Steve Sanderson said this afternoon:
“We welcome this decision and its backing for Loxley’s gas as a secure, sustainable energy source with a far lower pre-combustion carbon footprint than imports. Backing UK domestic gas makes strategic, economic and environmental good sense. We look forward to moving the Loxley project forwards and to working constructively with the local community.”
James Knapp, of the regional campaign organisation, Weald Action Group, said:
“We are deeply disappointed by today’s Government decision to give the go ahead for UK Oil & Gas to drill for fossil fuels in Dunsfold. The application was twice rejected by Surrey County Council and was also opposed by local councils.
“Even if the site is proven commercially viable it will take years for new gas production to come on stream so it will do nothing to alleviate the current energy price crisis. Indeed, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change has stated that ‘Any increase in UK extraction of oil and gas would have, at most, a marginal effect on the prices faced by UK consumers in the future‘.
“The best way to protect consumers against rising energy prices is to rapidly increase renewable electricity generation, invest in energy storage and drastically improve the energy efficiency of our homes. Continued investment in fossil fuels will not only perpetuate our dependence upon them, continuing our exposure to uncertain and fluctuating global oil and gas prices; but, in the absence of a global cap on extraction, will contribute to the climate emergency already affecting millions of people around the world.
“With the commitments made to tackle climate change at COP26 still ringing in their ears it is unbelievable that the Government has allowed this appeal.”
The campaign group, Protect Dunsfold, which opposed the scheme said:
“Clearly this is a disappointing decision taken in response to a short term emergency. Long before UKOG manage to drill and prove any commercially viable oil exists at Loxley the war in Ukraine will be over and our energy supply will have stabilised.
“The decision of the Secretary of State (SOS) will not alter the physical distance needed for the drilling rigs and their support vehicles to access the site without impinging on common land; UKOG’s own application demonstrates this clearly.
“Such access would require permission from Waverley Borough Council, they have confirmed that permission will not be granted. The SOS cannot overrule that requirement, so his decision is somewhat unsound. Our local Conservative MP for South West Surrey, Jeremy Hunt, said in January 2022 that it was ”absolutely extraordinary after COP26 that we are even thinking about drilling for oil and gas in this area” when he joined with local people to demonstrate the problems with access.
“Protect Dunsfold is strongly opposed to this application by UKOG both on local environment grounds, because of the impact of the huge lorries and HGVs on our roads and on local businesses, but also because with the very real climate emergency we need to focus on sustainable and ecologically appropriate ways to generate energy. “
Two people who live close to the site and run businesses there expressed their disappointment. Tom Gordon, of High Billingshurst Farm, and Ashley Herman, of Thatched House Farm, said:
“This decision ignores the wishes of local people, the Parish, Borough and County Councils. Jeremy Hunt MP has stated that ‘it is absolutely extraordinary, after COP 26 in Glasgow, that we are even thinking about drilling for oil and gas in this area’.
“UKOG was twice refused planning consent for this highly speculative scheme which, even if it finds anything, is unlikely to be commercially viable.
“Even the Planning Inspector concedes that “if the impacts I have found regarding landscape character, visual effects and tranquillity, were permanent or of medium to long-term duration, then this proposal would clearly conflict with the policy aims and objectives of the mineral planning authority and the AONB…However, the weight I give to this is tempered by the short-term nature of the proposals””
“As immediate neighbours of the well site, three years cannot reasonably be considered short-term. We are distressed and angered that our established rural enterprises, employing many local people and which rely upon the tranquillity of their setting, will be severely affected, if not destroyed, by the hydrocarbon industrial activities taking place so close to our livelihoods and our homes.”