Greenpeace activists paste a 'Not for Shale' poster over the South Downs Centre sign in July [Credit: Ciaran McCrickard]

Shale gas exploration in national park blocked

Shale prospectors will not be permitted to explore for oil and gas in the South Downs National Park, following the refusal of their planning application.

Celtique Energie put in a planning application for a site near Fernhurst, West Sussex, to drill a temporary vertical well to test for oil and gas, but members of the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) heeded their officers' recommendations and turned down the application overwhelmingly.

Celtique had said before the meeting in Midhurst that it had produced a robust application which included steps to limit any potential environmental impact, but members of the SDNPA's planning committee agreed with their experts that there were no "exceptional circumstances" or "public interest" for it to go ahead.

Members agreed that Celtique had "not demonstrated that the national need for indigenous oil and gas supply and mix" could not be met elsewhere.

Cheers and applause broke out among opponents fearful that the plan could have led to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, taking place if the drilling had been successful. The controversial plan, which attracted more than 5,500 objections, could also have led to the drilling of a horizontal well extending out from the vertical one.

Geoff Davies, CEO of Celtique Energie, said the company was "disappointed" but not surprised at the decision given the SDNPA's public stance on oil and gas exploration in national parks.

"National planning guidance clearly state that planning for the supply of minerals has a number of special characteristics that are not present in other developments,” he said.

"We believe SDNPA officers appear to have made their recommendation and the committee appears to have made its decision based on a subjective and unjustified interpretation of planning guidance.

"The decision fails to take into consideration the importance of this project to the nation and the comprehensive steps Celtique would be taking to ensure that all exploration work would be done sensitively during the very temporary period we would be working in the National Park."

He said their studies found that the site was the "best available location" to go about exploratory drilling to find out the amount of untapped oil and gas resources.

The decision follows the county council's refusal of a bid by Celtique to explore for oil and gas near Wisborough Green, a conservation area also in West Sussex, just outside the South Downs National Park in July.

He went on: "It seems wrong in these highly uncertain geopolitical times that the national and public interest can be given such low priority. If we are not even allowed to explore it will not be possible to prove how significant this resource could be for the country.

"Government, including the Prime Minister and several energy ministers, has repeatedly stated that 'we are all in this together' when it comes to oil and gas exploration in the UK.

"However, given today's decision and the recent planning refusal by West Sussex County Council at Wisborough Green, we appear to be arriving at a scenario whereby, in the face of Government policy, operators are being deliberately prevented from exploring in the south-east of England.

"Our application was totally compliant, comprehensive and of high-quality. We believe it has been refused on subjective and unjustified grounds.

"We believe this proposal would be supported by the planning inspectorate or the Secretary of State in the event of an appeal. We are considering our further options and will make a decision in due course."

The meeting heard from a series of speakers, most of whom stiffly opposed the proposal amid fears about what would happen if viable oil and gas reserves were found and Steve Ankers, speaking on behalf of the South Downs Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said "the f word" – fracking – "would not be far behind".

He said: "We can see no evidence that the application has demonstrated exceptional circumstances or that the proposal would be in the public interest, therefore no justification could be found for such a proposal in a national park."

Opponents say fracking 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

Greenpeace UK climate and energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: "With their second consecutive no to fracking, Sussex authorities have sent a clear signal that the county is not prepared to be the testing lab for this inexperienced and controversial industry.

"The park authorities have demonstrated integrity, rigour, and ability to sort substance from spin, setting an example for other local leaders, like those in Lancashire, facing similar decisions.”

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