A storm is brewing in the normally tranquil South Downs after permission to dig for oil was granted to a petroleum company. Conservation groups are furious that the council is allowing such a development on a designated area of outstanding natural beauty.
West Sussex County Council granted permission this week for Northern Petroleum to drill an oil well in Markwells Wood, an ancient woodland in the village of Forestside, near Chichester. The company expressed an interest in drilling in the area after oil prices soared.
Groups opposing the plans say the drilling – which will destroy a hectare (2.5 acres) of woodland in an area which is likely to become part of the South Downs National Park – amounts to an act of environmental vandalism. But the council, despite its own ecologist and landscape officers objecting to the scheme, decided that the application met all legal requirements and approved it on the understanding that Northern Petroleum will replace and enhance the woodland when it has finished working on the site, which is expected to be in about three years' time.
Steve Marsh, a spokesman for the Woodland Trust, said: "This is in ancient woodland which we consider to be irreplaceable. It's our richest habitat for species in the UK and we would consider it as the equivalent, in terms of importance, to a rainforest."
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, added: "This application is a further symptom of our dependence on dwindling oil resources. Sooner or later we must wean our society off oil and the quicker we do so the better."
Jacquetta Fewster, director of the the South Downs Society, an environmental pressure group, said: "The damage to habitat, destruction of trees and hedgerows, the visual impact of the drilling tower and its lighting, construction of a new access through the wood, noise from vehicles: all of this is inappropriate in the Downs, where people go for peace and quiet."
Mark Dunn, the West Sussex county councillor for Forestside, said that the area was not as important as some were making out. "Technically it is ancient woodland, but to look at it you would not regard it as a very important piece of land," he said.
"We granted permission for oil to be drilled for two reasons: one is that there is a national policy in favour of extracting minerals from the earth where we have them; and secondly because we have struck a deal with the company which will actually see the area of woodland improved when they are finished."
There has been some concern that the oil drilling rigs, which will be 36 metres high and will drill 24 hours a day for up to five weeks at a time, are being set up when there is no certainty that there is oil under the land. But Mr Dunn dismissed that too. "There are four oil wells in the vicinity, so there is great expectancy, almost certainty, that there will be some here too, he said. "It would be incredibly bad luck if there wasn't."
The construction of the 120-feet high exploration rig will involve clearance of part of the wood and the building of a temporary access road and will take three months. Northern Petroleum has temporary consent for construction, drilling and testing for a period of three years, but they will need consent to remove the reserves if enough oil is found.
Experts have questioned the wisdom of attempting to drill oil onshore. Roland Wessel, chief executive of Star Energy, another company producing oil onshore in England, said tax changes meant such exploration was not as attractive as it had been, particularly given the relatively small size of oil discoveries. "You are never going to get a well to produce 15,000 to 20,000 barrels per day," he said.
The hunt for new sources of oil
It's no secret that the oil in the North Sea is running out. In 2006, Britain changed from being an exporter of oil to an importer. Last year, the country produced 1.8 million barrels a day but used more and so had to import 145,000 barrels daily. This year, it is expected that the production rate will drop to 1.5m barrels a day and so 310,000 barrels will have to be imported. This means that the country is now spending £3bn a year on importing oil, compared to earning £3m a year from exports, as it was in 2001. But those worried that this could mean a surge in the number of onshore sites needn't panic. Holly Pattenden, the head of oil and gas at Business Monitor, explains: "It wouldn't make financial sense to start drilling for oil all over Britain because the amount of oil in the ground here is relatively small. I would suggest that, when the oil does run out in the North Sea we will simply increase the amount we import." But the end of North Sea oil still appears some way off. Current figures indicate Britain has 3.7 billion barrels of oil and this figure is expected to drop to 3.2bn by 2012. At that rate it would take more than 20 years for the oil to run out completely. The few oil wells that have been built onshore have so far been small and are mostly in the south of England. The biggest is at Wytch Farm in Dorset, which produces 50,000 barrels a day.