The UK government has given the go-ahead for drilling to start to establish the size of a gasfield on the edge of the scenic Surrey Hills countryside just south of London.
The ruling, which was announced in a written statement by housing minister Stuart Andrew, overturns a decision by the local Tory-run council to block the project and angered environmentalists and the Liberal Democrats.
Although the minister agreed that the proposal would cause “significant harms to the character and appearance of the landscape”, Andrew said this was mitigated by the “short-term” nature of the three-year appraisal project.
Gas was first found on the site at Loxley, near Dunsfold, in the 1980s but no further work was done. UK Oil & Gas, the Aim-listed company that bought the rights, has been pressing to be allowed to develop the project since 2020. The application has twice been blocked by Surrey County Council.
The company has estimated the area could hold 43bn cubic feet of gas and the government decision allows it to drill to determine the extent of the reserves. It said it hoped to start work next year on determining whether the prospect was viable.
Stephen Sanderson, chief executive of UK Oil & Gas, said it had been a “lengthy and costly appeal process” but welcomed the decision. “Backing UK domestic gas makes strategic, economic and environmental good sense,” he said. “We look forward to moving the Loxley project forwards and to working constructively with the local community.”
The government has been keen to encourage domestic fossil fuel production to increase the UK’s energy independence in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Last week it gave the go-ahead to the Jackdaw project, a large new North Sea gasfield in waters 250 kilometres east of Aberdeen, which Shell will develop.
But the decisions have provoked anger from environmentalists, who argue that it contradicts the government’s pledge to reach net zero by 2050.
Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at CPRE, the countryside charity, said the decision to approve the drilling in Surrey was “absurd” and “guaranteed to provoke fury and despair”. “It’s extraordinary, given the urgent need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, that the government sees fit to greenlight a gasfield and damage the setting of an area of outstanding natural beauty.”
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said it was “shameful that the Conservatives have ignored the concerns of local communities”. “The best way to improve energy security is to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, by investing in renewables and insulating people’s homes.”
UK Oil & Gas is best known for its development of the Horse Hill oil well, on farmland two miles outside the town of Horley, near Gatwick airport, in Surrey. It has a 20-year permit and produced around 170,000 barrels of oil so far but continues to face legal challenges and protests.