Environmentalists battle to prevent search for oil in ancient South Downs landscape

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Northern Petroleum, an independent oil and gas explorer, has sparked a controversy with environmentalists over its application to drill for oil in an unspoilt area of the South Downs.

West Sussex County Council will debate next Tuesday whether to grant the three-year permit to allow drilling in Markwells Wood, an ancient woodland contained in a habitat classified as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The move has drawn the ire of groups including the Woodland Trust, which called the one hectare plot in question "the equivalent of the UK's rainforest" as it is home to the widest array of tree species in the country.

The Trust said the company's suggestion that it could reduce the environmental impact on the area by removing the ancient woodland soil and then replacing it after the work so new vegetation could grow was unacceptable. "Ancient woodland is irreplaceable," a spokesman said.

Northern Petroleum submitted its application alongside an initial recommendation from the West Sussex planning office to approve the project. The planning committee could give final approval next week. A West Sussex County Council spokesman said no decisions had been made. "These are all issues that will be discussed next week," he said.

The application has been opposed by the Chichester District Council, the South Downs Joint Committee, and West Sussex's staff landscape officer and ecologist. If the exploration is successful, Northern Petroleum could apply to increase the area of operation for proving wells and production. That could destroy another 10 hectares of ancient woodland, the Woodland Trust said. Northern has operations in the UK, Guiana, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.