A judge has overturned a planning inspector's decision to refuse permission for exploratory oil drilling at a beauty spot.
Europa Oil and Gas won an appeal which means its application to be allowed to drill at Coldharbour in the Surrey Hills will have to be reconsidered, a blow to campaigners from the Leith Hill Action Group (LHAG) who now plan to take the case to the Court of Appeal.
The company first applied for permission in 2009 to search for oil and gas deposits beneath Bury Hill Wood, off Coldharbour Lane, which stands in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), but after more than 2,000 objections were submitted, Surrey County Council refused the application in May 2011.
That decision was then upheld by an independent planning inspector at an inquiry in July 2012, prompting Europa to launch its appeal.
The inspector concluded that the development was consistent with Government policies on energy and minerals, but it was nevertheless inappropriate in the Green Belt as a result of the impact it would have on the AONB and in terms of traffic.
Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the inspector had made fatal errors in the way he had approached the question of minerals exploration and extraction, and the matter must be reconsidered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
The judge said relevant issues had not been considered because of the inspector's errors and, if the case had been properly considered, "the outcome may very well have been different".
Andrew Newcombe QC, who represented Europa, had told the court that the proposed development was in the public interest and supported by national policy on investigating onshore oil and gas resources, subject to the overall planning balance.
Europa’s CEO, Hugh Mackay said, “We are naturally pleased with the judge’s decision. Holmwood (how Europa refers to the site) was assigned mean gross un-risked prospective resources of 5.6 million barrels of oil in a CPR (competent person’s report) published in June 2012, making it in our view one of the best undrilled prospects onshore in the UK.
“Above all, allowing conventional exploration to take place at Holmwood is consistent with recent government initiatives to promote hydrocarbon exploration in onshore UK.
“Were a commercial discovery to be made at Holmwood, not only would it materially add to Europa’s existing production of 180BOE/D (barrels of oil equivalent per day) from three existing UK onshore fields, but it would also generate substantial tax receipts for the Government over the life of a well.
“Aside from Holmwood, we have a number of other exploration licences in the UK and offshore Ireland. In the UK we are due to drill the Wressle prospect later this year and which we rate as having a one in three chance of making a commercial discovery.
“Offshore Ireland, a 3D seismic acquisition programme is currently being carried out by our joint venture partner Kosmos Energy. This is an exciting period for the Company and further updates will be provided as and when it is appropriate to do so.”