An oil company plans to drill for black gold under the South Downs.

Ancient woodland in the small village of Forestside, to the west of Chichester, could become the latest outpost in the hunt for oil if planners give an exploratory scheme the go-ahead.

On Tuesday, West Sussex County Council's planning committee meets to decide on an application for the project from drilling company Northern Petroleum.

The firm wants to clear a hectare of Markwell's Wood at South Holt Farm and use a 36m drill 24 hours a day to delve for a share of the estimated 200 million barrels of oil it believes is buried deep in the ground.

With the price of oil having soared to more than £60 a barrel, the site potentially contains fuel worth at least £12 billion.

But as well as being earmarked as National Park land, the woods are in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. That, coupled with the site's proximity to homes, has prompted a stream of objections from Chichester District Council, the South Downs Joint Committee, West Sussex County Council and the Woodland Trust as well as people living nearby.

Concerns centre on the impact of noise and truck movements in the protected area as well as the visual damage caused by the work and the loss of ancient woodland.

Despite several calls from The Argus, the company yesterday refused to discuss its plans for the site.

Northern Petroleum is confident there is a deep reserve of oil across the north of the county and that the potential for striking a rich seam in this rural corner of Sussex is high.

Oil is already being drawn in nearby Singleton from a pumping station which began operating in 1991 and filled 29,537 barrels last year alone.

Another in Storrington, which began pumping oil in 1999, produced 9,511 barrels last year. Just across the Hampshire border in Horndean, a site which began operating in 1988, produced more than 10,000 barrels last year.

In their report to the committee, the council's officers recommend that the plans are approved.

They state that there is "a clear and overriding need for oil exploration"

in order to promote competitive markets and maintain the reliability of energy supplies.

Access to the site would be gained from the northern side of Forestside Road through an existing farm entrance. The road would then pass behind several homes in Forestside on its route to the site.

One person whose house backs on to the proposed site and access road is Sharon Ordish, who has lived in the village for 14 years.

She said: "It may seem selfish but I don't want to see trucks trundling down the lane behind my house. It's so peaceful and beautiful here.

"I don't see why they need to find some more oil. It's a waste of time. They should be spending money on renewable energy instead."

The effect of the clearing and drilling operation on the abundant wildlife in the area has also been called into question.

In a letter to the county council John Simons, of nearby Dean Lane End, listed a number of species which he said would be affected by the proposals, including buzzards, badgers, foxes, hares, stoats, weasels and a variety of songbirds.

He said: "The area is particularly beautiful and it must be protected and preserved for the future.

"This development will ruin the area and the tower will stick above the trees. The noise from the site and increased traffic will affect people who live in the area.

"If oil is found in sufficient volume and quality to commercially justify its extraction, then what will be the effect of that?

"As a countryman the whole proposal makes me shudder.

"It is alien to this environment and must be rejected by the council."

If planning permission is granted Northern Petroleum would have three years on the site to clear it, cover it in a 30cm layer of stone, set up its 36m tall drilling rig, search for oil and return the land to its previous state.

It maintains that the site would be busy for only about 19 weeks of that time and if oil is found, a separate planning application for future works would have to be gained.

Would drilling for oil be a disaster for the Sussex Downs? Tell us what you think below.