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Shale gas national park bid blocked

Planners have rejected a bid by a shale company to explore for oil and gas in the South Downs National Park.

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.

The controversial plan, which attracted more than 5,500 objections, could also have led to the drilling of a horizontal well extending out from it.

But members of the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) heeded their officers' recommendations and turned down the application overwhelmingly.

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.

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 in the "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.

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.

He said: "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.

"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.

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."

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, was turned down by the county council's planning committee in July.

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 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.

"As carbon pollution in our atmosphere hits record levels and the world faces one of its toughest challenges in slashing climate-damaging emissions, fracking is the exact opposite of what Britain needs and wants - genuinely clean, safe, renewable energy."

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.

Steve Ankers, speaking on behalf of the South Downs Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), 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."

Local resident John Buchanan said the community had already faced 18 months of uncertainty over Celtique's bid, and it would be condemned to at least another three years if it went ahead.

He said: "Surely we should be drilling our national parks last, not first. I would find it impossible that you would go against the most carefully considered opinion of your officers."

But Jenny Massingham, of Celtique, told the meeting that there would be "no significant adverse" impacts that would warrant refusal.

And Robyn Butcher, of the Terra Firma Consultancy, said the site could not be considered as "tranquil and unspoilt" as she tried to win members' approval.

But SDNPA member Douglas Jones said the site had "breath-taking views" and was an "almost secret" part of the national park that should be free from major development.

And fellow member Diana Kershaw said: "Why on earth did they bid in an area that is a national park? There are other areas in the Weald but most are covered by areas of outstanding natural beauty.

"They could not have picked a worse place for their drilling location."

Other members said preservation of the "stunning" protected landscape should over-ride the clear energy challenges.

Among the opponents at the meeting was actor James Bolam, who starred in The Likely Lads and When The Boat Comes In.

Mr Bolam, who lives nearby, voiced concern that had the application gained approval, fracking could have taken place within the South Downs.

He said afterwards: "The whole idea of doing (fracking) in a national park - the whole idea of doing it in the south - is ridiculous.

"But to do it in a national park is outrageous. It should mean a lot to everybody. It means a lot to me because it got proposed near to us.

"You start thinking, 'What's fracking?' Then we went to a meeting Celtique gave and you go online to look at what's happened in America and Australia.

"Millions of gallons (of water) used and millions of gallons of polluted water coming out. Where does that go?"

Friends of the Earth (FoE) hailed the planning committee's decision.

Brenda Pollack, FoE's South East campaigner, said following the meeting: "This is a victory for common sense. There should be no place for shale oil or gas exploration in our national parks.

"But thousands of communities across the country still face the threat of fracking in their back yard.

"It's time to build a clean energy future based on efficiency and developing the nation's significant potential for renewable power, and ending our dirty and damaging addiction to fossil fuels."

Nick Clack, senior energy campaigner at CPRE, said: "Given the continuing uncertainties around the impacts of oil and gas drilling, it is crucial that the Government and local planning authorities pay attention to public opinion and do not allow it in sensitive designated areas like national parks.

"If such activity, including fracking, is to go ahead anywhere, we need the highest possible safeguards."

Margaret Paren, chair of the SDNPA, said later: "The decision was unanimous and very firm. The message has gone out that robust evidence is vital to jump the very high hurdles set out in national planning policy."


From Belfast Telegraph