- Fracking threatening Sussex countryside
- Cuadrilla have licences for 270 square miles
- Planning permission to drill in Balcombe
- Targeting layer within Kimmeridge Clay
- Analogous to Bakken Shale in North Dakota
- Would need thousands of wells to extract oil
- Same severe impacts as in US and Australia
- Villagers getting organised to resist invasion
- Cuadrilla is trying to push ahead regardless
- Need permits to start, but could be soon
The sleepy village of Balcombe in West Sussex, in the middle of the Weald valley, has until recently not been a place you would associate with industrial development. The surrounding countryside is among the most picturesque you will see out of the train window on the line between London and Brighton. However, in 2008 Cuadrilla Resources acquired a petroleum exploration and development licence (PEDL 244) for an area of Sussex, including Balcombe, and acquired an adjoining licence a few years later, bringing the total area of Sussex countryside they can exploit to over 270 square miles.
In January 2010 Cuadrilla applied to West Sussex County Council for planning permission to drill a exploration well, on a site where Conoco previously drilled a well in 1986, without success. Very few people were aware of this application and those that were assumed that it would be a similar story to Conoco, decades earlier. No one had heard of Cuadrilla or fracking and a mention of “stimulation” in the planning application did not mean anything to anyone. There were no objections and three months later permission was granted without any fuss.
The world has changed since the mid-1980s though and whereas Conoco were looking for conventional oil, in a reservoir of permeable rock, Cuadrilla – spurred by sky high energy prices – are prepared to go to much greater lengths to get hydrocarbons out of the ground. Unconventional oil and gas targets much less permeable rocks, with densely packed (usually) horizontal wells and various extreme stimulation techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing. While in Lancashire Cuadrilla are focused on getting gas out of the Bowland Shale, in Sussex they are after so called tight (shale) oil, similar to the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.
If this exploration leads to full scale development at the well-spacing now common in the Bakken, 4 wells per square mile, it could mean 32 wells within the parish of Balcombe and over 300 within 5 miles of the village. Up to 1,200 wells might be drilled in the the whole of Cuadrilla’s licence area. Further west, in the centre of the Weald valley where the formations are deeper, it is possible that gas rather than oil may predominate. Celtique Energie, who have licences across much of West Sussex, are bragging about quantities of gas that would require thousands of wells to extract.
These developments threaten to industrialise the Sussex countryside with well pads, and associated pipelines, compressor stations and processing plants. One only has to look to the US, Canada or Australia what living in the middle of such an oil/gasfield is like. Over 100,000 unconventional wells have been drilled in the US in the last decade, and thousands in Canada and Australia. In parts of the US, drilling is starting to push into the outskirts of cities, as they run out of countryside to frack. See our article Fracking Sussex: The Threat Of Shale Oil & Gas for more details.
It was only following the publicity around Cuadrilla’s misfortunes in Lancashire (breaking their first test well with an earthquake they caused) that Balcombe residents became aware of what was planned, and a public meeting was called in the village hall in January 2012. Cuadrilla managed to invite themselves to the meeting and came in will their PR team to smooth things over. After they had been grilled for several hours by hundreds of angry locals, they retreated to lick their wounds. However with their temporary planning permission due to expire in September this year, they are now keen to proceed as soon as possible.
Recently Cuadrilla returned to Balcombe and held a “consultation”, to explain their plans. Wary of their previously reception they booked a small hall for the afternoon that could only hold a few people at a time, and packed it with executives. The village responded, coating the area in anti-fracking signs, organising a kids anti-fracking picnic and mounting a continuous protest outside the venue. As usual Cuadrilla were less than convincing, with a Cuadrilla executive even caught on tape admitting that everything they said sounded like “utter fucking bullshit”.
Meanwhile security guards, from the third worst company in the world G4S, have been present at the site 24 hours a day for several weeks. Last week a small drilling rig arrived on site to drill a water monitoring well, in preparation for the main event. In response the locals begain organising a Rigwatch outside the site entrance, to keep track of what Cuadrilla are up to. On Monday a tea party was held outside to site, to protest Cuadrilla’s presence.
Cuadrilla have still not cleared all the hurdles they need to in order to commence drilling, however. They require mining waste and radioactive substances permits in order to dispose of the toxic and radioactive waste the drilling will generate. In Lancashire the Environment Agency waved the requirement for a permit allowing Cuadrilla to dump radioactive sludge from their Preece Hall site into the Manchester Ship Canal, but there is no information about any plans for where this waste would go. The Environment Agency have launched a month long consultation on the permits, potentially delaying drilling into July.
Regardless of these legal issues, Cuadrilla are faced with having to try to push through the drilling despite the near unanimous opposition of the local community. Across Sussex people are equally unkeen on the threatened industrialisation of the county. In Australia, where three gas companies have already been forced out of New South Wales, community opposition has been highly effective. The industry is suggesting blackmailing communities with the threat of withholding public services, or bribing them with cash payments, to acquiesce to the destruction of their environments. They are clearly worried by the mounting opposition.