Rejecting new oil drilling is slippery business

An example of an oil drilling rig

What did it mean when the Government declared a Climate Emergency and Surrey County Council – among other regional authorities – followed suit? Did it give them powers to act in certain ways?

Could they use it to influence policy? To set agendas? To change historical ways of doing things, in order to be more environmentally friendly? Was it a door ajar to push for change, and only ajar rather than open? Or a truly defining moment where the door was wide open and a real crack at reducing our carbon emissions could be made?

Working towards a carbon neutral Britain by 2050 has to start now – and many say that target should be much closer.

When Extinction Rebellion held London, and other cities, to ransom in April 2019, the UK Government took notice.

They declared a Climate Emergency soon afterwards. They also agreed to the movement’s demand to set up a Climate Assembly, made up of citizens representing a cross section of society: those who were not necessarily worried about climate change and those who are.

In this context, it was fascinating that Surrey County Council’s planning committee refused an application for an “exploratory” oil gas drilling site in Dunsfold, in the borough of Waverley, south of Guildford. It was even more interesting that Climate Change (or the Climate Emergency) was not listed among the reasons for refusal.

Let us put aside the rather chaotic nature of the discussion and resolution at the planning meeting, which voted 6-5 to refuse UKOG’s application. UKOG also runs the site at Horse Hill, west of Horley, which was granted a 20-year licence to drill for oil. The techniques at Horse Hill are not fracking, which was halted in the UK last November. A judge refused a judicial review attempt by a campaigner, saying the planning authority should have taken into account the climate effects of burning the produced oil, although the case is ongoing.

After much discussion at Monday’s meeting, a motion was put forward, to reject the planning officers’ recommendation to approve the Dunsfold application. Then, the two councillors who proposed and seconded the motion were asked to come up with their reasons, in a break in proceedings.

Having put them forward, and listened to countless counter arguments about how those arguments might be defeated at a planning appeal by the applicant, a vote was taken. Like watching a penalty shoot-out, the votes came in. One councillor couldn’t get his vote – effectively the casting one – heard, because his microphone wouldn’t work. So he put it in the “chat” (not publicly viewable) and was also telephoned for confirmation. Refuse the application, he said.

Then, the council officials asked for clarification. What were the reasons for refusal? Within planning law? This needed to be minuted, for the council and the applicant.

It was felt that some of the arguments put forward, about highways concerns and lorries, would be rejected at appeal for various reasons

For example, permission has already been granted for felling in two local woodlands, involving hundreds of lorry movements, despite local signage – only advisory but from the Highways Authority – indicating that the roads are unsuitable for HGVs. Neighbouring businesses to the proposed site involve large vehicles at times, too. A fundraising festival happens nearby annually, with large set up vehicles required.

The designation of the land as an “Area of Great Landscape Value” was non-statutory (a bid to include the piece of land into the nearby Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is pending). The 38m drilling rig would be a “seriously incongruous feature” said the officers’ report, but this was not enough to reject the application. “Not in itself,” highlighted one councillor, but in conjunction with other factors… the effect on the economy, particularly a local £4m wedding business that employed local people and used local suppliers, etc.

There was little mention or emphasis of wildlife being affected: the so-called “newt-counting delays” that Boris Johnson wishes to remove for housing planning. There were no rare butterfly eggs found, like for one application in Croydon.

After another break to list some points that would stand up as planning reasons, it was decided that “it has not yet been demonstrated that there is a need for that development, nor that the impact on highways, noise, lighting and air quality will not be significant, contrary to policies MC12, MC14 and MC15 of the Surrey minerals plan, 2011.” Have a read of those clauses, on p62. They are not that long. The vote was then passed, 9-1, one councillor having had to leave this marathon discussion for another appointment.

Several hours of fuss – I mean fun – had thus taken place to reject an “exploratory” oil investigation and give it a three-year licence. The applicant raised the arguments that we need oil (and gas), that the results could power 100,000 homes – 200,000 if the materials could be turned into electricity. And that, during Covid-19, our plastic PPE had been made largely from oil. But as our reader(s) will know, PPE doesn’t need to be made of plastic and we can power all our homes with energy from renewable sources.

And that word “exploratory”? That reasoning of fuelling homes didn’t sound too temporary. Once the exploratory period is over, then what?

Yet where was the mention of invoking Surrey’s Climate Emergency declaration in the ultimate planning reasons?

Nowhere. It was referred to once or twice in the hours of arguments, but not when it came to the real planning reasons.

That’s because it isn’t a planning reason to reject an application.

National Government policy is still to allow for new gas and oil exploration (and that plans should be decided locally). That is still the case, despite that national Government’s declaration of a Climate Emergency. What has happened since? Policies inhibiting applications for onshore wind farms have been lifted.

Locally, councils could decide to recycle more items, to make their offices plastic free, or – if they wanted and can afford it – fit carbon neutral features such as solar panels to their public buildings, such as offices, libraries and schools.

But do they have the teeth, the tools and the power to cut through major legislation and reject drilling applications just because local residents don’t like it? Which in Dunsfold they didn’t. Of 622 pieces of correspondence, 521 were against – including Waverley Borough Council and parish councils. A protester was delighted and said it showed SCC’s Climate Change Strategy does have importance. That was of no interest to UKOG, who indicated they will appeal the decision and believe they have strong legal grounds to win.

Councillors came to a climate friendly decision, in a round about way, using the tools they could. Therefore it is at national level that policies really need to change, if the notion of that Climate Emergency declaration is to turn into more than lip service to appease protesters and become an avenue for real change.

If the application goes to appeal, we will see what national Government help they really receive. It could be historic. It could be ground breaking. But we will see the whites of the Government’s eyes on being true to their Climate Emergency Declaration. If the planning Inspector doesn’t feel hamstrung by laws and regulations.