Will the new Lord Lucan strike oil in Sussex?

George Bingham, son of Lord Lucan - David Rose
George Bingham, son of Lord Lucan - David Rose

As names go, it’s reasonable to say that “Lucan” chimes in the British psyche for its association with a disappearance: specifically that of John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, who infamously vanished into the night after being suspected of murdering his nanny at their Belgravia home in 1974.

But, while that Lord Lucan may be lost without trace, his son George is hoping to make his mark. If things go according to plan, the former investment banker will soon be drilling for oil in rural England.

If he is successful in opening a well just outside Balcombe, in West Sussex, Lucan and other would-be oilmen hope to open up drilling across the Jurassic Weald, a stretch of oil-rich shale which stretches all the way from the leafy outskirts of Winchester in Hampshire to the rolling downs of Rye in East Sussex.

The British Geological Survey estimates that the area holds 4.4 billion extractable barrels of oil in total. Lucan’s company, Angus Energy, has two sites on the Weald that are already producing oil – one near Bognor Regis, the other close to Dorking. But it will be the coming battle for Balcombe which could prove pivotal.

In 2013 the parish became the first area in Britain to see widespread anti-fracking protests. Then the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Bianca Jagger and former page-three girl Marina Pepper joined local protestors and managed to see the oilmen off. But now – with energy supplies running short and a new focus on economic growth from the Government – the battle is set to be waged all over again.

Malcolm Kenward, a retired IT professional who has lived in Balcombe since 1988, fears that the new push for UK energy could unleash devastation on the whole area. “The bigger worry is the Weald,” he says. “If this ever took off, to get any significant volumes it’s going to have to be across the whole of the Weald, and that would be just pure devastation and industrialisation on a massive scale. Anybody who has looked at aerial views of sites in the US would just shake if they saw that here.”

Malcolm Kenward in the village of Balcombe - Christopher Pledger
Malcolm Kenward in the village of Balcombe - Christopher Pledger

The first attempt to drill at Balcombe ended in what appeared to be a clear and irreversible victory for the environmentalists. Cuadrilla, the company which then owned the site, dropped its plans and effectively pulled out. Environmentalists credited the wider “Balcombe Effect” for causing support for drilling and fracking to rapidly drop off across the country.

But that was before Lord Lucan’s arrival in 2018 (he inherited the title in 2016, when a death certificate was finally issued for his father). His company Angus Energy now holds a 25 per cent stake in “the Balcombe Discovery”, along with Cuadrilla and a third company Lucas Bolney. Together they intend to drill for oil, not through fracking but using more conventional Texan-style drilling methods. It’s a distinction that doesn’t cut much ice with the locals.

Initially, the new plan was rejected. In March 2021, 13 councillors on the West Sussex planning committee unanimously refused Lucan’s application to exploit the site. In their rejection, the planning committee cited reduced energy demand as a result of Covid-19 and the Government’s climate-change commitments.

But then came the war in Ukraine, an energy crisis and a new government under Liz Truss, which has a very different tune on oil and gas exploration to its predecessors. Only yesterday, the new Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, doubled down on that. Asked by the Telegraph if he’d support drilling in his North East Hampshire constituency (part of the Weald Basin) if local people approved, he indicated he would, saying the principle for such planning proposals should be “local people making local decisions”.

Fracking is about to begin at old Cuadrilla, Balcombe in East Sussex - Chris Gorman / Big Ladder
Fracking is about to begin at old Cuadrilla, Balcombe in East Sussex - Chris Gorman / Big Ladder

The new Lord Lucan, then, might have found his opportunity. In February, as record petrol prices bit, he filed a belated appeal against the decision to stop oil exploration in the West Sussex spot. In it, Angus Energy argued that the Balcombe site would boost the UK’s domestic energy supply, at a time when “energy demand is rising and oil and gas production and supply is increasingly politicised”.

In an interview earlier this month, Lucan described UK oil and gas companies as “an attractive long-term proposition for investors”. In a separate recent call with investors to discuss another venture, the Saltfleetby Gas Field in Lincolnshire, he added: “There has been a growing recognition that we need this resource now for the next few years whilst we continue with the transition [to zero carbon]”.

The kind of oil exploration that Angus Energy says it will conduct doesn’t come with the same earthquake risk as fracking but, for locals and green groups around Balcombe, many of the concerns are the same, including potential air or water pollution from the site. Others worry about the many heavy trucks expected to move back and forth through the small village, directly past its primary school.

“The risks to the environment are very similar to fracking, although the technologies vary slightly, but in terms of what it means to us as humans,” says Helen Savage, 47, a teacher who has been involved in protests against the Lower Stumble site since the beginning.

An anti-fracking sign is displayed at the protest camp by the entrance to a site run by Cuadrilla Resources - LUKE MACGREGOR
An anti-fracking sign is displayed at the protest camp by the entrance to a site run by Cuadrilla Resources - LUKE MACGREGOR

Already, locals are gearing up for a fight. Like many “Green Tories” across the country, they are worried and angry about the new Government’s attitudes to the environment and the countryside. While it once looked as if the door was closed on onshore oil and gas, suddenly it seems back on the table – especially in the south. Last week, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new business and energy secretary, said “using the hydrocarbons under our own feet” was “greener and more secure” than importing oil and gas.

“We’re not NIMBYs,” says Savage. “We don’t want oil or gas exploration here, but we don’t want to inflict it on other communities either. This technology increases air pollution, risks our geology and our water. Moreover it adds to climate change. What is there to like?”

The Weald Basin is one of the biggest and oldest sources of hydrocarbons in England. Gas discovered during the construction of Heathfield railway station in 1880 was subsequently used to power its lights. There were several phases of oil exploration between the 1930s and 1980s, which had limited success, despite promising signs of significant reserves.

For the moment, though, Balcombe remains a leafy commuter village. Home to around 1,800 people, it is one of the smallest stops on the London-to-Brighton trainline and residents wave hello to one another in the street. A sign outside the only pub points towards “London”, “church” and “railway station”.

A general view of the village of Balcombe where large protests were held against fracking in Sussex - Christopher Pledger
A general view of the village of Balcombe where large protests were held against fracking in Sussex - Christopher Pledger

Villagers say Lucan, who spent 30 years working in finance and private equity, has shown little emotion when he has turned up for meetings. At the most recent one in 2021, he left before the rejection was read out by the planning committee. “I think they thought it was a done deal and were genuinely shocked,” says Savage.

One look at the landscape – both natural and political – and you can see why the area hasn’t yet seen all-out drilling. Most of the region is part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, attracting well-heeled commuters looking for an idyll – which is now under threat.

“We wouldn’t even dream of trying to frack south of the Watford gap,” Lucan told an investors conference earlier this month. “And I think anybody who does try has a screw loose.” As for drilling, well, that’s a different matter entirely.

For now, all that locals in Balcombe can do is keep a watching brief. This week, the site at Lower Stumble was entirely hidden by trees, and a line of Portacabins set up by Network Rail. A rusted fence keeps out intruders: attached is a laminated copy of the High Court injunction that Angus Energy sought against protestors in 2018. If Lord Lucan gets his way, those same protestors will almost certainly be back. His appeal is expected to be heard any day now.