West Sussex is sitting on a potential gold mine of oil and gas buried deep underneath the Weald basin. And the CEO of British energy company Celtique Energie stressed this week ‘the geology isn’t going away’. If Geoff Davies’ firm doesn’t drill, another will, he said discussing a site near Kirdford and Wisborough Green.
In short, the controversial topic of hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking - is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
“We shouldn’t be having to battle to find out what the nation has got, but we are,” said Mr Davies during an exclusive interview with the County Times. “We’re battling to put a hole in the ground.”
The 59-year-old Lancashire man, who is behind plans for exploratory drilling sites at Broadford Bridge in Billingshurst, Fernhurst and a location near Kirdford and Wisborough Green, says he is conscious of the ‘fear factor’ and ‘lack of trust’ which shrouds the industry.
This week the CEO revealed Celtique is preparing to submit a further two applications for potential sites some where in its 1,000 sq km (247,000 acre) license-holding area which stretches from north east Crawley to westerly Hampshire. But he refused to disclose the exact locations for planning process reasons.
Celtique has been given the green light to test hydrocarbons at the Billingshurst site off Adversane Lane. Mr Davies expects work to commence during the second quarter of this year subject to finding a rig and getting the go-ahead from the Environment Agency.
Plans have progressed with no disruption from protesters, because fracking will never take place on the site.
But in Kirdford and Wisborough Green it’s another story.
Since the application was submitted to West Sussex County Council in August last year Mr Davies has made clear the controversial technique could be used in the future if initial tests prove positive.
The news sparked a wave of opposition from locals - exacerbated by the summer of protests at Cuadrilla’s site in Balcombe.
It made headlines around the world when hundreds of activists descended upon the village for months of campaigning before they were forcibly removed by police.
In the wake of such spotlighted scenes, residents have formed the group Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green and are preparing to wage war against Celtique.
Mounting traffic, wildlife devastation and plummeting house prices are among the fears they have expressed. All issues which have been excepted, mitigated or dispelled, explains the CEO.
“We would be absolutely amazed if we don’t get planning permission for Wisborough Green. If we don’t, we will appeal.”
Mr Davies emphasised ‘all alternative routes’ have been researched with regards to the flow of traffic in and out of the well-site on farmland off Kirdford Road.
He spoke of temporary traffic lights and allocated time slots for vehicles to enter and exit.
He said: “We believe it’s a small impact but the acid test will be if the planning authority see it as a small impact.”
The CEO claims top experts have been investigating the potential affects on wildlife surrounding the site - in particular the Barbastelle Bat.
This has formed a ‘major part’ of an environmental impact report and the firm will install ‘bat boxes’ and ‘shroud lights’.
Mr Davies dismisses speculation that property near drilling sites suffer a decline in value, citing evidence from Wytch Farm in Dorset - BP’s biggest onshore UK oil well located in the heart of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - where he claims house prices are some of the most expensive outside of London.
He argues the fracking ‘fear factor has been totally overblown by activists’.
The CEO continued: “I think despite the Government support, people are still fearful.”
So why should Celtique be trusted? Asks Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green campaigners.
His reply is simple: “Why shouldn’t we be trusted?
“Since the 70s I have been in the oil and gas business. This is what I do. Our team are all highly experienced people - they’re not straight from university - they’ve been hand picked. This is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world. If it isn’t the word of the Government and the word of Britain’s best scientists, who do you believe?”
The UK’s impending energy crisis stems back to steep decline in North Sea oil and gas reserves, says Mr Davies.
“We’re importing more and more which has implications on security of supply. There will be no extra jobs and the Government will be taxed more. It’s a problem facing all of Europe. You can’t just replace fossil fuels overnight.
“The Government can’t afford, neither can it do it fast enough, to go straight to renewable. There has to be a transition period.”
Get exploration right, hit the so-called ‘sweet spot’, and the rewards can be massive, Mr Davies argues. He gave an example of ten wells over an area the size of two to three football pitches each producing 0.5million barrows of oil in its lifetime. The five million barrows has the potential to generate around $5million of revenue.
The CEO stressed the shale formation Celtique will be drilling through at Kirdford and Wisborough Green ‘could be like peanut butter’ and not be suitable for fracking. He adds there is also a chance they could hit a fresh water reserve instead, ‘then how popular would we be?’.
But fracking or no fracking, Mr Davies repeated ‘the geology doesn’t go away’.
“You can’t move it. What goes away is the licence holder. If we don’t find oil someone else will come in and have a look because of the advances in technology. This isn’t going away.”
Mr Davies said the average Mr and Mrs Sussex are not ‘climate change’ people. “They put petrol in their car and they use planes to fly away on holiday.” But admits there will always be people he can never convince. “Dealing with these people is like banging your head against a brick wall. We will never convince them, and they totally dislike us.”
The CEO concluded: “It’s safe, it’s beneficial - give us a chance. Judge us on our performance. This could solve a lot of the country’s problems.”