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Black gold — but at what price?

by Rosemary Horton, Climate Ambassador


LET’S face it, tackling the climate emergency means reducing carbon emissions drastically. When I sat down to write this article I checked my messages, as you do. I was encouraged to read that the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that reducing carbon emissions involves ending investment in new coal, oil and gas today to reach zero by 2050. This is the first time the IEA has aligned with the Paris Agreement goals.

So why is this significant? Oil and gas drilling is nothing new in Surrey. Most of it happens quietly behind unobtrusive gates and little is known of what happens there. Stringent regulations have to be adhered to, planning permissions sought and environmental regulations met. Sites such as Albury have continued to produce a steady supply of gas for many years now. So, what is the problem?

The Government’s Geological Survey produced a report (The Weald Basin Jurassic Shale Study) in 2014. It concluded that yes, there is oil and gas in the Weald but it is hard to access and very  localised, in ‘sweet spots’.

Take Brockham for example: BP drilled for oil there from 1987 using nodding donkeys. However, they found the yields were lower than hoped, with excessive water, and sold the site. Since then it has had several owners, the most recent of whom are Angus Energy. They have bored more wells but failed to discover significant yields despite going far deeper. Right now they are applying for permission from the Environment Agency to convert one of their wells into a water-disposal facility.

Why is this needed? Waste water from oil drilling is extremely ‘dirty’, containing pollutants from deep in the earth plus any chemicals that might have been used to help extract the oil. When oil is hard to get at, they need to break down the rock around it to bring oil droplets together to aid extraction. Called ‘acidisation’, a complex solution of chemicals is pumped into the well, strong enough to dissolve rock. This solution of acids, water, lubricants and oil is pumped out of the ground and the oil extracted. The remaining waste water has to be disposed of and the cheapest way is to pump it back into the ground.


If it is pumped into different strata it can cause stresses, even earthquakes, so it has to be undertaken very carefully, especially as huge amounts of fresh — potential drinking water — are used. A connection between the 2019 spate of minor earthquakes and the oilsite at Horse Hill near Horley was ruled out by an enquiry, but many consider it to be flawed. There is also the problem of drinking water. A significant number of wells degrade over time, within 15 years of being shut down. The ‘dirty’ water could leak out into the layers of rock that provide us with drinking water — a  potential time-bomb for the future. How dare we risk damaging such a precious resource?

Dunsfold is facing another application from United Kingdom Oil and Gas. In September 2019, Surrey County Council gave permission for four more production wells at Horse Hill with the go-ahead to drill for 20 years. A Redhill resident challenged SCC on this in court, claiming that the carbon emissions arising from the combustion of the oil were not in line with SCC Climate Emergency Status. The judge found that SCC were not required to consider greenhouse gas emissions when giving planning permission for massive expansion of oil drilling at the Horse Hill site.

Apparently, this judgement was in line with Government policy which hasn’t been updated since  before the net zero target was enacted and doesn’t reflect the fact that Parliament has declared a National Climate Emergency. How can we have a zero emissions target if we don’t count the carbon emissions?

Surely, because oil and gas are hard to extract and regulations hard to enforce, our time, money and energy could all be better spent working towards a renewable future.

I make no apologies for highlighting these important issues and am very grateful to Pat Smith, Dorking Climate Emergency, who ensured that I got the facts right. Pat helped raise money for the legal fees for the Horse Hill challenge by walking 100 miles between potential and active drilling sites in Surrey.

* For more information on oil drilling in Surrey:  wealdactiongroup.org.uk/2021/03

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