Mole Valley village residents take on oil giant in drilling battle
CAMPAIGNERS fighting to prevent oil drilling in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are preparing for the latest round of their battle with an oil company. Sam Blackledge reports.
FOR the past two years, people living in Leith Hill and Coldharbour have been fighting a company that wants to drill for oil in a nearby wood.
Europa Oil and Gas is targeting Bury Hill Woods for a 30-day "exploratory drilling" project, during which it hopes to find oil and gas underground.
The plan was thrown out by councillors last year, but the company lodged an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate, and a public inquiry will take place in July.
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Members of the Leith Hill Action Group (LHAG), set up to oppose the scheme, are preparing to present their case at the inquiry.
Committee member Stuart McLaughlan said: "We are not anti-oil. We are not saying don't drill for oil. The whole premise of our case is that they must deal responsibly. They have got to bear in mind the effect on the local landscape and the local community."
The group is concerned that lorries travelling to and from the proposed drilling site would cause permanent damage to Coldharbour Lane.
Locals are also worried about traffic – they have been told temporary traffic lights will be placed at either end of the narrow road to allow lorries to access the site, which the campaigners say would cause "totally unacceptable" delays.
LHAG chairman Peter Tindall said: "If this is allowed here then nowhere in Britain is safe. It is a matter of precedent.
"We see ourselves as little village residents who have been pitted against this mighty oil behemoth which couldn't give a damn about us.
"It is devastatingly expensive to defend this case. A big oil company can simply throw money at the situation and bury everybody else in legal expenses, which we can't afford to do."
The inquiry will take place at Dorking Halls from July 10, and is expected to last about two weeks.
LHAG needs to raise a total of £50,000 to cover its legal costs, and the inquiry will also hear from Surrey County Council and Europa representatives.
Mr McLaughlan added: "It is very important that we win so a precedent is set.
"This would do an enormous amount of damage.
"You are never going to get around the issue of trashing Coldharbour Lane.
"That issue is never going to go away from this site. We are basically one-nil up, and we are having to defend our case."
A Europa spokesman said: "If the appeal is successful, the exploration well is unlikely to be constructed before 2013.
"The appeal does not include an application for field development or any permanent structure, and after the 30 days the site will be returned back to its original state.
"At the beginning and end of the 30 days, traffic on Coldharbour Lane will be managed for three six-hour periods.
"This is to ensure vehicles do not cause any damage to trees on the sunken lanes, and is an example of Europa's commitment to minimising the impact of its activities on the local environment at all stages of its operations."
The spokesman added: "The company intends to follow and respect the appeal process and at this stage has no further comment to make on this matter."
In May last year Surrey County Council's planning and regulatory committee refused the application, saying it would have a "negative impact" on the area.
A council spokesman said: "As the county planning authority, we will present evidence at the public inquiry in support of the reasons for refusal of the planning application agreed by the planning and regulatory committee at their meeting on May 25, 2011.
"It is anticipated that the county planning authority will have up to four witnesses covering planning, landscape, highways and geotechnical matters."
- For more information about the campaign, visit www.lhag.info