Sign displayed during a Greenpeace protest outside West Sussex County Council

Shale company's exploration bid rejected

A shale gas company has had its application to explore for oil and gas in West Sussex turned down.

West Sussex County Council's planning committee refused the application by Celtique Energy for oil and gas exploration near Wisborough Green, a conservation area just outside the South Downs National Park.

The refusal, thought to be the first time a council has rejected a planning application by a shale company, was welcomed by local campaigners and environmentalists who feared that the exploration would lead to controversial fracking for oil or gas.

The county council said it turned down the application because Celtique did not demonstrate the site represented the best option compared with other sites, it had unsafe highways access and would have had an adverse impact on the area.

Heidi Brunsdon, chairman of the council's planning committee, said: "There were simply too many highways issues and other issues of concern for any decision other than refusal in this instance. We have noted the objections of the local community and I felt that the debate today was a full and robust one."

Almost 100 people attended the meeting at County Hall North in Horsham to hear the debate and the decision, including actor James Bolam and his wife, actress Susan Jameson – local residents who fought against the scheme.

After the decision, Brenda Pollack, South East campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "This was absolutely the right decision. Nobody wants to see Sussex ruined by industrial drilling for dirty fossil fuels. If Celtique had been allowed to test for oil or gas, then there's every chance that fracking would have followed.”

The council's decision comes after a group of nine landowners, including West Sussex Wildlife Trust, surrounding the site launched a "legal blockade" against fracking by officially refusing the company permission to drill under their land. The move followed a similar initiative in nearby Fernhurst, in the national park.

Currently shale companies need permission from landowners before drilling under their properties, or get special permission from the courts, but ministers have announced plans to change the law so fracking can go ahead without landowners' approval.

Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: "Local councillors deserve credit for standing up to the barrage of propaganda and pressure from the industry and Government. They have set an example of rigour and independence for other local authorities to follow."

Celtique holds 16 licences for exploratory drilling in five countries in Europe, it says on its website. It holds four licences for the Central Weald basin in southern England, which is estimated to hold a substantial amount of untapped reserves of gas or oil.

The Government has committed to going "all out for shale", claiming development of the gas and oil resource is needed to improve energy security, boost jobs and the economy and bring down energy prices.

But opponents say it causes disruption and damaging development in the countryside, can cause minor earthquakes and the risk of water pollution, and that exploiting new oil and gas resources is not compatible with tackling climate change.

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