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For and against: Should UK Oil and Gas drill for oil near Rowlands Castle?

Published in the Portsmouth News on the 19th May 2017

Story by Tamara Siddiqui


IT’S BEEN the subject of debate for nine months, but what are the arguments for and against UK Oil and Gas’ proposal to drill for oil near Rowlands Castle?

TAMARA SIDDIQUI spoke to the company and those campaigning against it to find out.

Councillors, interested bodies, campaigners, charities and residents – all have had their say about Ukog’s plans to drill for oil at Markwells Wood, situated in the South Downs National Park near Rowlands Castle.

The company temporarily withrew its application for the project earlier this month, but plans to re-submit later this year.

Ukog claim it will then have more site-specific data available to answer remaining questions about the site’s suitability, regarding the adjacent chalk aquifer.

The company applied to the South Downs National Park Authority to develop an existing oil field at the site, with the intention of proving it’s commercially worthwhile. If that’s the case, Ukog wants to drill three more oil wells at the same site.

The plans drew objections from campaigners and residents, who raised concerns about a number of issues, namely the potential pollution to drinking water.

Markwells Wood sits atop the aquifer that feeds thousands of people in Portsmouth. Worries grew about potential pollution to Bedhampton and Havant Springs, which supplies 35 per cent of the water used by Portsmouth Water. So what does each side have to say?

UK Oil and Gas – FOR

We welcome this opportunity to set the record straight, and tell you what we’re going to do, not what others think we’re going to do.

The site at Markwells Wood has existed for seven years, being constructed and drilled in 2010 and oil production tested for six months in 2012, all without incident. It’s also conventional oil and so we are not massive-fracking.

Markwells Wood is geologically identical to the neighbouring Horndean and Singleton oil fields. The existing well lies within a modern site equipped with four containment systems, designed to ensure zero discharge and isolation of surface activities from the underlying chalk.

No fluids, including rainwater, can discharge down into the ground. Our new data is designed to provide irrefutable proof this is the case.

The existing well is also isolated from the surrounding rocks, notably the chalk, by three sets of overlapping heavy gauge steel tubing (casing) which is bonded to the rock with impermeable concrete. The planned drilling within the existing borehole can have zero impact upon the adjacent chalk aquifer.

Future project phases would see up to four new boreholes drilled through the chalk. This will be done using a biodegradable zero-hazard drilling fluid and in the same manner as wells used to provide public drinking water from the chalk.

When the chalk has been drilled it will be immediately isolated behind steel casing and concrete, as has the existing well. There will be no contamination of the chalk.

Our executive chairman, Stephen Sanderson, said: ‘We firmly believe our activity will have no impact on the chalk aquifer because we’re using identical techniques to most water well companies.

‘We’ll be using a water-based, biodegradable drilling fluid that’s been approved for drinking water wells. We are also confident the chalk underlying the site is not actively connected to the Havant and Bedhampton Springs.’

The claim acidisation is an ‘untried and untested’ technique isn’t true. The process is utilised by companies responsible for supplying our drinking water from limestone aquifers without detriment to water quality or public health.

The diluted hydrochloric acid is used in limestone rocks to dissolve small amounts of it to improve the flow of fluids into the well, and is the same whether the well is used to provide drinking water or oil. The dilute acid isn’t forced in at a pressure great enough to fracture the rock.

The planned HGV route is the same as used in testing, when 4,000 barrels were transported without incident.We expect an average of one road tanker per day.

Campaign group – AGAINST

Our campaign group Markwells Wood Watch was formed to fight against Ukog’s plans. We think the company’s proposals are a bad idea for so many reasons, and the main one?

Safety of our drinking water.

The ground under Markwells Wood is chalk, which filters the water to become some of the purest in the country. Hundreds of thousands of people in homes, hospitals, schools and more drink it.

Ukog wants to drill four wells and claim there is no risk of water pollution, but drilling through an aquifer, which needs to be done to reach the oil, creates that risk. The aquifer feeds more than 200,000 homes in Portsmouth.

According to data published by the British Geological Survey, this regional aquifer is highly porous, so if there is a spill, chemicals could reach taps in a matter of days.

This risk to our drinking water is so severe that both the Environment Agency and Portsmouth Water have objected to Ukog’s application — twice.

Do we really want a company which failed twice, to mess with our precious water?

The oil under Markwells Wood is trapped in rock and is difficult to extract. We know if Ukog wants to extract it commercially, it would need to use acidisation, which is like fracking. This process can use more chemicals than fracking itself and is not proven to be safe to the environment or human health.

Our group co-founder Emily Mott, said: ‘Acidisation is not properly regulated. Similar to fracking, large volumes of water and chemicals are injected underground to dissolve the rock and release oil. Despite claiming it is a transparent company, Ukog has repeatedly refused to disclose what chemicals it plans to use.

‘It has also misled the public, shareholders and MPs.’

Another of our group members, Reed Paget, added: ‘Ukog can’t be trusted. They have ignored the evidence published by the British Geological Survey, twice failed to get the approval of important bodies, yet want us to have faith in them to protect the water we give our children.’

The South Downs National Park was created to preserve beautiful countryside for people to enjoy. The woods are home to lots of wildlife including rare species of birds and bats. Habitats would be destroyed, there would be considerable noise and light pollution, and an increase in traffic with emissions and risk of accidents.

The strategic importance of the aquifer around Markwells Wood should be a matter of national and regional security. Clean groundwater is precious, finite and essential for health.

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