BROCKHAM OIL WATCH: THE CAMPAIGN SO FAR
Guest post by Brockham Oil Watch resident, Ian from Surrey:
It has been just over two years now since I first became involved in the issue of onshore oil production in the Weald area of South-East England. I had been worried about the proposed developments on Leith Hill and the threat of ruining a beautiful area I knew quite well, but as a Brockham resident, it became real for me when I started to see night lights and signs of new activity on the old oil site to the West of the village in December 2016.
My cycle commute at the time took me along Old School Lane right by the site, so one dark evening I stopped by at the ‘Protector’ camp that had been established by the side of the road, and had a chat with the people there who had been maintaining a dedicated 24-hour vigil, recording the comings and goings of vehicles and other activities and reporting these to the council and Environment Agency, as well as ‘slow walking’ in front of vehicles on the road and various other protests.
Through them, I eventually became involved with the newly formed ‘Brockham Oil Watch’ local residents’ group. I heard that there had initially been quite a lot of hostility towards the camp, who were perceived to be causing a nuisance and creating an ‘eyesore’ in the picturesque village, and that all campaigners were tarred with this same ‘activist’ brush. But it seemed clear to me that they were providing a service in drawing attention to what was going on, filling a gap in public awareness that council bodies and local press had failed to fill (many villagers didn’t even know the well existed) and ultimately ensuring that evidence of operator Angus Energy’s actions stayed in the public eye, and their dishonest tactics were fully revealed rather than being swept under the carpet.
The story eventually emerged that sometime between the 16 and the 26 of January 2017, Angus had drilled a side-track well 1,391m deep into the Kimmeridge limestone formation. This was the same tight oil formation targeted at Horse Hill and prospectively for Leith Hill and other licenses across the Weald. Angus had claimed to Surrey County Council (SCC) that it was just a ‘workover’ of the pre-existing BRX-1 well, followed by essential safety maintenance work. SCC had in fact written to Angus on two separate occasions stating that they did not have an existing planning permission to do any new drilling, including side-tracks from existing wells (an intention they had stated at the time).
So it appeared that Angus had deceptively proceeded with their plans anyway, regardless of their legality. A long period of legal wrangling ensued, during which time Angus loudly insisted their permissions were adequate, threatened legal action against those who claimed otherwise, which by this time included BBC London and several articles in the national press, and sought backing of their position from a Queen’s Counsel lawyer.
SCC had initially asked Angus to apply for ‘retrospective’ planning permission for the unauthorised side-track well, which the company eventually did in late 2017. Permission was subsequently granted at a council planning committee meeting in August 2018. A Brockham resident expressed the outrage many felt at the council’s decision:
“I was not angry before. Having listened to that meeting, I am very angry. There is one law for residents and locals who pay their council tax, and there is another law for corporations. If you are an individual and you build a house without planning permission you would be told to pull it down. If you are a corporation that drills a side track without planning permission that is ok and you can go ahead.”
More trouble appears to be brewing in Brockham now at the start of 2019. Following the unexpected victory at Leith Hill, where the Forestry Commission refused to renew the lease for Europa Oil & Gas, the unprecedented cluster of earthquakes centred around the nearby village of Newdigate, and the issuing of draconian injunctions to criminalise direct action protests within ‘exclusion zones’ around oil sites, it appears that Angus are once again, as of January 2019, operating in Brockham without full disclosure of their activities.
This time it is the Environment Agency which appears to be performing an enabling function for the operator. A new environmental permit issued at the end of November 2018 introduced welcome requirements for air monitoring, restrictions on gas flaring and acid stimulation, and finally disallowed the reinjection of ‘produced’ water (containing hydrocarbons) from active wells into one of the old wellbores at Brockham.
It is not clear how long reinjection has been going on for as the Environment Agency were not required to keep records. However produced water from Angus’ Lidsey site has been disposed of at Brockham since at least April 2018. The EA permit was rushed through without the customary public consultation and still left a loophole for the potential use of deeper acid stimulation under the guise of an ‘acid wash’ as long as the fracture pressure of the rock wasn’t exceeded.
Further confusion arose in December, when the ‘pre-conditions’ for gas management were split into appraisal and production sections, with the EA saying they had approved the former but not the latter. All of this seemed to be a rather panicked reaction to Angus’s move towards flow testing, the start of which they announced to shareholders on December 19 2018.
For me, the last two years have been an education in the underhand practices of the oil and gas industry, their disrespect for local communities and manipulation of the legal system to get their way. It has also showed the toothlessness of regulatory bodies which are supposed to protect the safety and well-being of the public, but one way or another end up rubber-stamping the industry’s malfeasance, making a mockery of the government’s original claims of gold-standard regulation when it comes to fracking and other unconventional oil extraction.
I attended a meeting with representatives of the Environment Agency back in August 2017 and they were full of reassurances about how they were going to ensure operator competence, implementing compliance action reports in the event of a problem, and noting with regards to Angus that “trust has been eroded” over the side-track issue and “we will be standing over them”. These now sound like empty promises, whether due to budget cuts limiting their effectiveness, being outmanoeuvred by Angus, having to abide by central government guidelines or other reasons. What still stands out in my memory was the way they acknowledged their role as one of ‘managing risks, not stopping industry’, even describing it as a process of ‘handing out permits to pollute’ (although they didn’t speak in these terms in public for fear of ‘scaremongering’). The public had to accept a certain amount of risk, they said, because we all benefit from the industrial production they permit.
I have found myself thinking more about this and the related accusation of NIMBYism, which several people have mentioned to me as a reason they feel they can’t oppose the oil and gas industry, being reliant on petrol-derived products for so much of their day-to-day existence. I’m tempted to respond: ‘well okay, but how did it come to be that way in the first place?’ with the point being that personal demands haven’t driven the supply of oil-based products so much as the reverse: the supply made available by oil companies inevitably generates our demand because the whole of society has been designed around this availability of cheap fuel to the point where there’s no other way to live!
Taking this view, it appears logical to oppose new oil extraction, not just in defence of the health and integrity of our back yards, but also as a way to resist the production that would lock us further into the oil-based economy with all the long-term negative effects that would entail, for us and the wider world. Brockham has seen first-hand evidence of the flooding generally understood to be exacerbated by global warming, with streams and rivers bursting their banks only a short distance from the oil site in 2013.
But yes, to be consistent and avoid hypocrisy we should extend the effort to regulate and (I would argue) stop all polluting industries not just where we live but everywhere, to avoid simply externalising the problem to others less able to defend themselves. That’s why my preferred acronym is NIABY – Not In Anybody’s Back Yard.
In the meantime, Brockham is still arguably a key spot in the onshore oil and gas industry’s efforts to expand into fracking and other unconventional extraction techniques such as the acid stimulation that industry insiders admit will be necessary for commercial exploitation of the Kimmeridge limestone and similar tight formations.
As such it will be an important testing ground, both for the industry and for campaigners attempting to limit its destructiveness.
For more information, please visit our website where you can also sign up for occasional updates via email. You might also consider donating to the group’s crowdfunder to help fund independent air and water monitoring of the Brockham site.