South Downs National Park Authority rejects shale drilling bid
Planning committee turn down Celtique Energie application to explore for shale gas and oil near Fernhurst in West Sussex
An energy company’s bid to drill for shale oil and gas in the UK’s newest national park – the first since rules were controversially changed to allow exploration in some of the most protected countryside – has been rejected.
Ministers in July clarified the rules on when drilling can take place in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and world heritage sites, following calls by environmental campaigners for an outright ban on drilling in them. Under the new rules drilling is allowed in national parks and other protected areas but only in “exceptional circumstances”.
On Thursday, the 11 officials on the planning committee of the South Downs National Park Authority voted unanimously to turn down an application by Celtique Energie to undertake exploratory drilling as a precursor to fracking at Fernhurst in West Sussex.
Margaret Paren, the authority’s chair, said: “The applicant has failed to demonstrate exceptional circumstances exist and that it would be in the public interest for such exploration to take place within the protected landscape of the South Downs. Planning permission was also refused because of the adverse impact on the tranquillity and amenity of the national park.”
But while local residents who had opposed the application celebrated and waved placards outside the planning meeting in Midhurst, Celtique Energie immediately said it believed ministers would overturn the decision if it appealed the decision.
Chief executive Geoff Davies said: “We believe SDNPA officers appear to have made their recommendation and the committee appears to have made its decision based on a subjective and unjustified interpretation of planning guidance.
“The decision fails to take into consideration the importance of this project to the nation and the comprehensive steps Celtique would be taking to ensure that all exploration work would be done sensitively during the very temporary period we would be working in the national park.”
Jenny Massingham, for Celtique, told the meeting that the drilling would cause “no significant adverse” impacts to merit a rejection.
But SNDPA member Diana Kershaw said the company could not have picked a worse location. “Why on earth did they bid in an area that is a national park? There are other areas in the Weald but most are covered by areas of outstanding natural beauty. They could not have picked a worse place for their drilling location,” she said at the meeting.
Environmental and rural campaigners were delighted with the planning decision. Brenda Pollack, south-east campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “This is a victory for common sense – there should be no place for shale oil or gas exploration in our national parks. But thousands of communities across the country still face the threat of fracking in their backyard.”
Simon Clydesdale, Greenpeace UK’s climate and energy campaigner, said: “With their second consecutive no to fracking, Sussex authorities have sent a clear signal that the county is not prepared to be the testing lab for this inexperienced and controversial industry.”
Emma Marrington, national park campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which campaigned for the park’s creation, added: “We welcome the commonsense decision not to allow industrialisation of the UK’s newest national park through oil and gas exploration.”
A rejection looked likely after SDNPA planning officers earlier this month recommended the committee turn down the bid, on the grounds that Celtique Energie had failed to demonstrate the exceptional circumstances required for drilling in national parks. Earlier in the summer, local highway officials said the company had underplayed the impact from lorry noise.
A recent poll for the Guardian showed the majority of the British public think fracking in national parks should be banned.