Campaign victory as bid to drill at Leith Hill withdrawn

Following 10 years of protest and campaigns, Europa Oil and Gas has withdrawn its bid to drill for oil on Leith Hill, Surrey, following Defra’s decision not to renew its lease for the site.

Leith Hill Keith Taylor
Leith Hill Keith Taylor
Kate Nicholson

Europa Oil and Gas has withdrawn from Leith Hill drilling bid after the government has decided not to renew its exploration lease, to the delight of  Keith Taylor MEP and his fellow campaigners after a ten-year tussle.

The firm, along with its four partners, UK Oil and Gas (UKOG), Egdon, Union Jack Oil and Angus Energy, was anticipating carrying out an exploratory drilling at Bury Hill Wood, near Dorking. Designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), it features well-known areas of natural interest besides Leith Hill, such as Box Hill and the Devil’s Punch Bowl.

Europa was due at the High Court on 4 September to request an extension to an injunction against protests at the site. However, the Environment Secretary and Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove surprisingly decided not to renew the lease, which expires next week on 12 September, so Europa will withdraw its application for planning permission at the Coldharbour Lane site.

Gove’s decision opposes a renewed push by the business and communities department to increase onshore oil and gas production to offset declining North Sea output.

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson told the BBC: “The nation’s woods and forests are cherished natural assets and we want to ensure they are protected now and into the future.” But, the spokesperson emphasised: “Any decisions on activity within the Public Forest Estate are made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the environmental impacts and latest evidence.”

The first planning application was submitted ten years ago, on 1 December 2008. After two planning enquiries and two court cases, it was eventually granted three years ago in August 2015. UKOG extended the initial term of the exploration licence for the sixth time, until September 2020. Work on the site continued to be delayed until permission expired on 6 August 2018, over a variety of problems such as awaiting approval for a traffic management plan.

An Environment Agency permit was granted for the site in July 2018 despite a petition against it, signed by more than 100,000 people and nearly 2,000 objections.

Ten years of opposition

There has been fierce opposition to the drilling at the site by campaigners over the last decade. Campaigners occupied the site for eight months until they were evicted in June 2017 – only to move across the road onto Forestry Commission land, whilst in February this year they journeyed to Guildford Cathedral to stage late night ‘guerrilla projections’ upon the building.

They have fought continuously against the drilling on Leith Hill in an effort to prevent disruption to the landscape and contamination to public water supplies that oil exploration could bring.

Green Party MEP for the South East, Keith Taylor, played an active part in the campaign against the oil drill in Leith Hill, writing to Michael Gove in June this year where he pointed out that partnerships with fossil fuel companies are ‘alienating the public whose support and funding it relies on’. He also held a protest at the site earlier this summer for Europa’s lease not to be extended and criticised the Forestry Commission for its handling of the affair.

In a statement released after the news of Europa’s withdrawal was announced, Taylor said: "I'm delighted that Europa's lease hasn't been renewed. There is no place in our precious Surrey Hills AONB for environment and climate-destructive oil drilling."Don't let anybody ever tell you protests don't achieve anything. They do. Residents and campaigners have been fighting drilling plans at Leith Hill for almost a decade; they have frustrated Europa every step of the way. Their dedication is amazing. I have been honoured to support them in their fight. This victory is unmistakably theirs."

"It is just the latest example of the power of organised and peaceful resistance. It is this power so many oil and gas firms are seeking to crush with increasingly wide-ranging and draconian injunctions. Europa says it's looking for alternative sites in the area, but deep down I suspect they know the game's up. That doesn't mean we won't be keeping a watchful eye."

Brenda Pollack, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told the Guardian that the rejection was a “significant victory”, whilst Lucy Barford, member of the local group A Voice for Leith Hill, warned that “there will be other battles ahead, oil drilling is still planned for other sites across the Weald [the region between the North and South Downs]”.

Despite the ongoing nature of the struggle, campaigners have afforded themselves cause for celebration, with Patrick Nolan, in a newsletter to other members of Leith Hill Action Group, writing: ‘Today’s announcement shows the value of continuing the fight.’

As Drill or Drop, an independent news site reporting on fracking and on-shore oil exploration, reports, Stephen Sanderson, Executive Chairman of UKOG, one of Europa’s four main partners, said: “The decision by the Minister [Secretary of State] for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is disappointing, but not altogether surprising. As the Leith Hill Site was less than ideal, we now welcome the opportunity to plot a new way forward to drill both the Holmwood prospect and other nearby prospective Kimmeridge targets in the future.”

If you’d like to read more about the history of the campaign and any future actions planned, please visit the Leith Hill Action Group website.