The Balcombe well during drilling in 2013. Picture by David Burr
The Environment Agency announced this afternoon it had granted a new permit for the oil exploration site at Balcombe in West Sussex.
But before tests can begin on the flow of oil in the well, the site operator must meet five conditions. These include measures to upgrade the site to:
- prevent pollution from spills
- detect and repair leaks of fugitive emissions from equipment
- calculate emissions from a flare which will burn waste gas
- recover vapour released during storing, transporting or handling of hydrocarbons
- include a pollution incident plan
The Balcombe site was the focus of the first big protests against the onshore oil and gas industry in 2013. The then site operator, Cuadrilla, drilled vertical and horizontal wells at the site but ran out of time to test the flow rate. The site has been suspended since then.
Cuadrilla transferred operation of the site this year to Angus Energy, the operator of other oil sites in southern England at Lidsey and Brockham.
The new permit allows the loading, handling and storage of crude oil at the site. It also updates the permit as part of an England-wide review of onshore oil and gas sites. It sets conditions on the volume of waste gas that can be flared during the flow test, along with the temperature of the flare and monitoring of hydrogen sulphide in the flare gas emissions.
The permit decision document, issued today, revealed that the Balcombe site does not meet all the requirements in official EA guidance on the onshore oil and gas sector.
Because of this, the EA has imposed what it called pre-operational conditions before the seven-day flow test can start.
The EA said the operator must submit a report showing that secondary containment systems have been installed to modern standards in areas where polluting chemicals and products are stored or handled. It said this condition was set to:
“review and re-install appropriate containment and site liners. These were removed from site at the start of the suspension period. It is also necessary to ensure that secondary containment systems meet the standards required of a new oil and gas exploration sites. This will reduce the likelihood of any uncontrolled polluting discharges to the environment.”
The operator must also submit a written plan for EA approval on dealing with vapours from liquid hydrocarbons. The EA said:
“It is necessary as the operator does not appear to be currently complying with the requirement to capture and recover all hydrocarbon vapours arising from the loading and unloading of liquid hydrocarbons into vehicles.
“Vapour recovery is necessary both for safety reasons and also to reduce the environmental impacts of storing, loading, transporting and unloading hydrocarbons.”
The EA said another “shortfall” from sector guidance concerned detecting leaks of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other substances. It has required the operator to submit a written “leak detection and repair plan”. This would identify, measure and reduce VOC emissions to an approved standard, the EA said. It is needed to manage fugitive VOC emissions from potential leak points, such as seals, flanges, pumps and valves, the EA added.
Public Health England said there should have been an accident management plan as part of the permit application. The EA said it has required Angus to produce a pollution incident plan before operations begin.
Angus also has to provide a method for calculating emissions from the flare.
Objections to the permit
There were more than 632 responses to a public consultation on the permit.
Balcombe Parish Council had concerns about a lack of information in the application on baseline monitoring data, geological information and the condition of a well drilled in the 1980s. It also objected to the permit because it said flare emissions would be blown towards the village.
The EA said baseline monitoring has been undertaken and the data was available. It said predictions of flare emissions were insignificant for all pollutants and environmental standards. It also said it had accepted the operator’s reasons for replacing an enclosed with a shrouded flare.
Ardingly Parish Council was concerned about risks to the nearby reservoir. The EA said:
“We are satisfied that the risks from the site have been mitigated with permit conditions and pre-operational requirements. There are no direct discharges to surface water from the site.”
The EA added that any residual extractive waste left underground would remain in or immediately near the wellbore and would “pose no risk to groundwater in the underlying geological strata”.
The consultation raised concerns about fugitive emissions from the flare and storage tank vents. The EA said it the site operator was required to monitor the flare feed gas flow rate and combustion temperature. This would be used to calculate emissions of oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, VOCs, methane and hydrogen sulphide. The operator would also have monitor gas vented for storage tanks, the EA said.
Noise, vibration, odour and dust
The EA said:
“We are satisfied that the activities, if carried out as per the waste management plan and odour management plan, will not cause noise, vibration, dust or odour pollution.”
On noise, the EA said it could require Angus to submit a noise and vibration management plan if there were problems.
An acid wash is proposed at Balcombe to clean the well bore during the well test. The EA said:
“We do no consider acid wash a well stimulation method. We do consider other methods such as matrix acidisation, acid squeezing and fracture acidisation to be forms of well stimulation but these methods are not proposed or permitted to take place at this site.”
Objections also raised concerns about potential pollution from storage of waste materials on site and inadequate containment.
The EA said:
“As it has been some time since the site was in operation and structures can deteriorate over time a pre-operational condition has been added to the permit requiring the operator to review and install secondary and tertiary containment, where appropriate, before operations re-commence.”
It said it was satisfied that the risk of pollution from spills would be minimised.
Landscape and wildlife
The Balcombe site is in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The EA said the proposed activities were temporary and the well test period would last about seven days. Appropriate measures would be in place to minimise the impact of activities on the site, it added.
On wildlife, the EA said it was satisfied that the activities would not “pose a significant risk” to ancient woodland near the site.
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