Fury as government overrules council to approve 'absurd' Surrey gas drilling

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The government has given the green light to gas drilling at a site in the Surrey Hills (Getty)
The government has given the green light to gas drilling at a site in the Surrey Hills (Getty)

The government has approved plans to drill for gas near an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Surrey countryside, provoking “fury and despair” from environmentalists, residents and the local MP Jeremy Hunt.

Campaigners said the decision “makes a mockery” of the ministers’ claims to be taking the climate crisis seriously and warned it would irreversibly damage the area.

Mr Hunt, backed by some as a potential future Tory leader, blasted the decision that he said would cause “enormous disruption and environmental damage for little if any economic benefit”.

Housing minister Stuart Andrew overruled local councils to give the go-ahead to drilling at Loxley well near Dunsfold, a village in the Weald which dates back to the 13th century and has historic buildings.

The site is in the South West Surrey constituency of former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who slated the decision as “bitterly disappointing and wrong both economically and environmentally”.

The energy firm UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) had appealed against the refusal of its plans by Surrey County Council, but a planning inquiry last year led to an inspector concluding the drilling should be allowed.

Mr Andrew agreed with the inspector there was “no evidence that there would be harmful emissions from the well either before or during operations”, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said.

He also said government policy supported using mineral resources within acceptable environmental constraints, according to a statement from the department outlining the decision.

Mr Hunt wrote to levelling-up secretary Michael Gove, accusing the department of “ignoring the strength of local opinion” which went against government commitments to devolving powers.

And he said the decision caused “enormous anger and disappointment across all political parties” while also damaging the government’s own commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions.

By the time anything could be extracted, the UK would be well on its way to reducing fossil-fuel use, he said.

Appealing for a rethink, he wrote: “In short, it will create enormous disruption and environmental damage for little if any economic benefit.”

Mr Andrew said he made the decision on behalf of the secretary of state because of the proximity of Mr Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency to the area.

Tom Fyans, head of campaigns and policy at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “Approving the drilling of a gas well in the Surrey countryside is an absurd decision that’s 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 gas field and damage the setting of an area of outstanding natural beauty.

“Given the scale of opposition to this plan – with the local council, local MP and local people all united in their anger – it is hard to see how the project can go ahead without mass protests.”

Mr Fyans said it was “utterly bizarre” the government had approved the drilling on the same day it rejected permission for work at two fracking sites on the grounds that shale gas drilling was incompatible with net zero goals and public health concerns.

Such a contradictory approach to the climate crisis suggested the government was not serious, he added.

Councillor Steve Williams, of Waverley Borough Council, said the decision was the “worst possible outcome” and “will lead to irreversible harm to our environment and to local people”.

James Knapp, from the Weald Action Group, which had protested against the drilling, said its members were deeply disappointed over the “unbelievable” decision.

“Even if the site is proven commercially viable, it will take years for new gas production to come on stream so will do nothing to alleviate the current energy price crisis,” he said.

“With the commitments made to tackle climate change at Cop26 still ringing in their ears it is unbelievable that the government has allowed this appeal.”

UKOG chief executive Steve Sanderson said: “We welcome this decision and its backing for Loxley's gas as a secure, sustainable energy source with a far lower pre-combustion carbon footprint than imports.”

Although the go-ahead is for exploratory work, permission to extract gas, known as fracking, has not yet been granted, the government says. A ban on fracking is still in place.

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