The rolling hills of the South Downs are to become the latest victims of what may be the UK’s last great oil rush. With the price of oil peaking at $135 (£68) a barrel, even the smallest reserves are becoming hugely profitable, and oil companies have begun cashing-in on an area known as the Weald Basin, encompassing Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent.
Markwells Wood, an 11-hectare ancient woodland on the Hampshire-Sussex border, is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) within the proposed South Downs National Park. Despite this, West Sussex County Council (WSCC) recently granted planning permission to Northern Petroleum to spend three years prospecting for oil and gas there.
The application received scores of objections, most notably from the council’s own ecology and landscape departments.
WSCC ecologist Don Baker made an ‘ecological objection to the placement of a drilling rig within ancient woodland’, quoting the local planning authority’s own guidelines that it ‘should not grant planning permission for any development that would result in its loss or deterioration unless the need for, and benefits of, the development ... outweigh the loss of the woodland habitat’.
The council’s landscape officer, Veronica Craddock, also lodged an objection, stating the ancient woodland ‘is the most valuable landscape type in terms of biodiversity and should be protected at all costs’. Further objections were received from Chichester District Council, the South Downs Joint Committee and the Woodland Trust, on the basis the plans were against both Government guidelines and local planning policy, which states National Parks and AONBs can be used for oil exploration only if the potential benefits outweigh the destruction.
However, it seems the need for the last few drops of black gold does outweigh the need for conservation, as seen in the 2007 white paper ‘Meeting the Energy Challenge’, which states we must ‘maximise economic recovery of the UK’s remaining reserves of oil’.
WSCC planning committee chairman Mick Hodgson says ‘a very strong presumption in favour of allowing oil exploration... comes from central Government for energy security and economic reasons.’
It is thought 200 million barrels lie under the Weald Basin. Optimistic studies suggest Markwells Wood may yield 10 million of them, less upbeat ones three million. With UK oil use at 1.87 million barrels a day, that’s less than a week’s supply. Yet the record price of oil makes this haul worth a potential £680 million.
But whether all this is more valuable than protecting the area’s unique ecology, as per the guidelines, has yet to be shown. Hodgson seems unconcerned. ‘It wasn’t even brought up in the meeting how much oil is available,’ he says. ‘Nobody knows until someone has tried to find out. I’m sure the applicant has done sufficient homework. I’m not an expert in oil – I know virtually nothing about it.’
He also said the committee had visited the site and the oldest tree was only 40 years old. ‘We decided the woodland was not as important as the oil exploration,’ he says.
The Woodland Trust branded Hodgson ‘ignorant’ and questioned whether he had read the environmental reports. A spokesperson says: ‘Whether it looks it or not, this is ancient woodland... wooded since the last Ice Age. When the original trees were taken out in the 20th century the soil went into stasis. It is filled with ancient spores, insects, vertebrates, fungi, all things with an ancient heritage. It is one of the most complex ecologies in the UK. If you took away the trees it would regenerate into ancient species, but it relies on being undisturbed. If you take away the soil it is gone forever. The council are ignorant in not looking at the detail.’
Although WSCC insists nothing illegal has happened its decision flies in the face of conservation efforts. The worry is this will set a precedent, and where this year one hectare of AONB will be destroyed looking for oil, next year the whole forest will disappear as finds are extracted. Indeed, Markwells-1 will be the third oil site in that region, with one two miles to the west and another six miles to the east, all in AONBs. Hodgson does not seem too worried about further digging; neither does he think Northern Petroleum will have any problems getting additional planning permission to do so, saying ‘If they do find oil then they will extract it.’
And this is only the first of several wells. Plans are being drawn up to drill at least four sites across the Basin over the next 18 months; UK-wide the Government is offering a record 97 licences for onshore oil and gas exploration. At a time when conservation and investment in alternative energy sources are supposed to be top of the agenda, allowing the south of England to become peppered with nodding donkeys seems a dramatic swerve in a perplexing direction, yet all signs are showing this is just the beginning.
Sarah Lewis is the 2007 London and South Environmental Journalist of the Year and editor of Sussex ethical lifestyle magazine Rocks. Go to Rocks Magazine for more information.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008