ARE we sleepwalking into an oilfield? The oil industry hopes we are. So do the Conservatives.

If they get their way, there will be wells across the Weald, with West Sussex the prime target.

Broadford Bridge is the latest Sussex oil site to hit the news. In pretty countryside, between Billingshurst and the gorgeous village of West Chiltington, a controversial oil pad was the site for a media love-in last week. UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) was keen to counter protests and woo investors – it brought in the drill last month, to the consternation of locals and before all permits were in place, and is looking now for new investors.

What UKOG is planning bears little resemblance to the environmental permits and planning permission granted to the site in 2013. Back then, the intention was to drill very deep, for gas. Now UKOG is drilling for shallow oil, 900 to 1,200 metres down, where it plans to acidise shallow limestone-rich strata within the shale.

“This type of oil deposit very much depends on being able to drill your wells almost back to back so that it becomes very much like an industrialised process,” CEO of UKOG, Stephen Sanderson, told investors. On Thursday he was quoted in The Argus as planning “up to eight wells” amidst just 20 acres of Sussex farm land and communities.

UKOG is not the only company planning wells across the region. There’s also Cuadrilla, of Balcombe fame, which likewise drilled horizontally into the limestone. This is no free-flowing “sea of oil” feeding the nodding-donkey-style wells of old. It will need to drill a lot of wells. That means that the oil is highly unlikely to flow in commercial quantities unless substantially “stimulated” by fracking or acidisation.

The acid works by dissolving tiny passageways through the limestone, and needs a variety of other chemicals to help it on its way. Sanderson says the Kimmeridge limestone is “naturally fractured”. True, but geologists argue that the ancient fractures have been squished together by rocks of ages above, and are no longer open.

The oil industry has acidised in the Weald for decades. Acidising ranges from ‘an acid wash’ (simply cleaning out the well bore) to ‘matrix acidising’ (at low pressure, penetrating a few inches, scant feet at most, into the rock) to an ‘acid frack’, done at pressure with a higher concentration of chemicals.

Oil companies have, in the view of local campaigners, sought to muddy the extent of their acidising plans. Whatever the truth of what companies say at exploratory stage, local communities believe they will want to acid frack when they start producing, to get at more of the oil-bearing rock. Then, with the land already sullied and millions spent, they will apply to frack the surrounding “regular” shale. That’s one of the problems of our planning and permitting system – permission creep. “Oh no, we’re not fracking,” they can truthfully say. Not yet at least.

Calling these new Weald oil wells “conventional” risks making them a non-issue for communities, media and planners. The Conservative manifesto promised to make all “non-fracking” oil and gas drilling “permitted development” – the kind of minor development you don’t need to bother the planners about, like a small shed or conservatory. It would mean no need for planning permission, no council influence on lorry routes, no say for local communities.

The communities around the Broadford Bridge site are not scaremongers. They know that oil wells offer few jobs for local workers, and that the wildly exaggerated compensation on offer will in no way offset the losses for local tourism, farms, and the potential drop in house prices.

Their concerns are upheld by science, experience, and an increasing body of medical evidence from elsewhere in the world: air pollution from flares, diesel pumps and heavy traffic, risk of water pollution via a potentially poorly-constructed or deteriorating wells (the most common route) or via natural faults in this highly faulted region; risk of spills and accidents, blowouts, explosions.

Fixated on fossil fuels, a string of governments have failed to invest adequately in renewables, batteries, adapting the electricity grid, managing peak electricity demands, energy conservation, changing attitudes to energy waste. It’s happening in spite of political failure. Now is not the time to build an oil field. Are we prepared to see the countryside we love industrialised for the sake of a small, short-term reduction in our balance of payment deficit, and profits for the few?

Broadford Bridge Action Group is holding a meeting on Sunday from 7pm to 9pm, at West Chiltington Village Hall.

  • Kathryn McWhirter is a journalist specialising in wine, food and energy matters, and lives in Balcombe