Operator: Angus Energy (previously Cuadrilla)
Planning application refused, then allowed on appeal. Legal challenge under way.
An application by Angus Energy for a one year extension to carry out flow testing was unanimously refused by West Sussex councillors in March 2021. Angus Energy appealed against the unanimous refusal – and in February 2023, a planning inspector overturned it. Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association (FFBRA) challenged this decision with a judicial review, but this was rejected in October 2023.
In May 2020, Angus Energy withdrew their planning applied for planning permission to ‘test’ the oil well that had been drilled on the southern edge of Balcombe village in the summer of 2013. Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association is going to challenge the Planning Inspector’s decision to allow Angus Energy to flow test in Balcombe, in the High Court.
When this application was submitted in 2019, Angus’s managing director Lord Lucan said they hoped to be granted permission by West Sussex County Council in early January, at which point they would get to work in Balcombe “hammer and tongs”.
The company statement to shareholders announcing the withdrawal on 1 May said that Angus intends to submit an updated application for a shorter test within six weeks.
Lord Lucan has said that Angus will not be fracking at Balcombe. But the local community points out that their end game must clearly be to frack the deep layer of shale, and that their current plans to acidise the thin muddy limestone layers within the shale would bring most of the risks of fracking and many of the certain negatives. The acidisation (at a certain pressure) might indeed have been called fracking had not the government changed the legal definition.
Angus have been operators at the site since 2017, having bought 25% of the PEDL licence from Cuadrilla, who to this day own 75%.
A vertical well had been drilled on this site in the mid-1980s by Conoco. It was acidised but failed to flow, and was abandoned. In 2013 Cuadrilla drilled a second well (vertically and out horizontally for a third of a mile), having told the community and the government that they needed to frack if Balcombe was to be commercially viable.
The drilling was accompanied by summer-long protests by locals and others who came to help, sleeping in a roadside camp. The protests drew national and international media and public attention. At peak, protesters numbered 2,000. Of 120 arrests, including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, only a third resulted in conviction. Campaigning, peaceful protest and moves by Friends of the Earth held up the drilling so that Cuadrilla ran out of time to test the well. (Their initial planning permission expired in September 2013.)
In 2018, Angus successfully took out an injunction against ‘persons unknown’ (ie anybody) impeding their work at Balcombe, on pain of imprisonment, fines and seizure of assets. The injunction has since been weakened by legal challenges to other similar injunctions elsewhere in the country.
Testing the well in 2018, Angus struck water and had to stop. They returned early in 2019 but were unable to resolve the problem. Owing to an administrative error by a previous Angus managing director, the planning permission was cancelled before it had run its course. That is why Angus are now obliged to reapply for planning permission.
The well at Lower Stumble, just south of Balcombe village, is 350 metres from the nearest houses and upwind from the village. Amongst other issues, residents are deeply concerned about emissions from the flare, which would be carried by the prevailing wind and topography towards the village. They also object strongly to heavy vehicles, including oil tankers, passing to and fro through the village in close proximity to the primary school and houses.
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