Hampshire's oil reserve quandry

Did you know that Hampshire has untapped oil supplies? With world reserves depleting Jim Keoghan investigates how likely it is onshore oil fields could begin appearing around the county and what affect it could have on the environment and economy

Could Hampshire turn into the Texas of England? Will the ten-gallon hat become a more common sight in the county? Could a Dallas-esque show ever be made about a local family of oil-barons living in Andover?Maybe that’s taking it too far, but the sight of more oil wells appearing on our landscape is a real possibility. In the last few years there has been a marked increase in the number of licences issued to oil exploration companies intent on striking black gold in Hampshire.

Why here? Underneath the beautiful, verdant hills of our county lies part of the Weald Basin, an area of rock that is believed to contain a limited but rich source of oil. In fact it’s thought that there could be millions of barrels of oil sitting right under our feet.It might surprise you to learn that oil has actually been drilled in the county for some time. One of the largest on-shore oil fields at Humbly Grove near Alton has been in operation since the 1980s and there are many other smaller wells dotted about here and there.For decades the oil industry in the county has trundled along in a very low-key kind of way and is only now coming to people’s attention because what’s planned in the future could be so radically different. There is the real possibility that oil drilling is about to become a much bigger deal.

Why is this happening now?“Price is the driver” says local Green MEP Keith Taylor. “Demand for oil is growing, supply is dwindling and so this is driving up price. This means that oil fields that once might have been too expensive to explore, such as those onshore in the UK, are now more attractive. It’s quite straight-forward economics.”All across the world, sites previously thought to have been uneconomic are now being explored. This especially benefits previously ignored onshore sites, such as those in Hampshire because it’s much cheaper exploring on-shore than off-shore.But, as Sophie Hull of Northern Petroleum explains, price does not explain everything. “Price is obviously very important but it’s also the case that using the latest methods and now having access to nearly all of the data from 25 years of exploration and production in the area, we have identified a number of undeveloped oil fields from previous drilling and some less well defined possibilities. Many oil discoveries were ignored in the past, but in the light of newer technologies we can now access that oil.”

What this means for Hampshire“From just our point of view the most obvious way oil drilling impacts on the county is on its economy because that will benefit in two ways,” says Roland Wessel, Chief Executive Officer of Star Energy, who operate the Humbly Grove oil field.“The most direct way is via employment whereby we employ over 50 people in the county. And secondly we make a significant contribution to the local economy via the payment of rates, and via the contracting of a multitude of services.” From a wider perspective, when you take into account the many companies who could be operating in the county and the amount of oil that might be extracted, then the full economic impact of the industry can be appreciated.But there are always two sides to any argument and Keith Taylor feels that despite the economic benefits more drilling shouldn’t be encouraged. “Oil is a finite resource. The jobs that we are creating here are not sustainable. It would be much better to put our efforts into creating jobs in sustainable energy. “The Eneco wind-farm near the Isle of Wight is a great example of this. The jobs created there are for the long-term. It’s also true that in reality we might be destroying the Hampshire countryside, one of the county’s greatest assets, just to benefit a few private shareholders. Drilling would also impact on some of our communities and affect parts of the county’s infrastructure. Further drilling is short-termist. Yes, there would be some economic benefits but I don’t think it’s worth the risk and I’m confident that this county can find jobs elsewhere and ones that have real sustainability.”

Worth the risk?In harder economic times these arguments might not be as attractive as they would have been just a few short years ago. Jobs today has an appeal and there is a sense that the county would be mad to ignore an economic opportunity so easily provided, especially as some of our neighbouring counties are happy to allow exploratory drilling.When it comes to the impact on the countryside, the nascent oil-rush is perhaps unfortunate that it has coincided with the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. The environmental devastation that this has caused has certainly coloured the debate. Although the drilling in Hampshire is both on-shore and much smaller in scale, it’s difficult to escape the reality that an element of environmental risk is unavoidable. The county, and specifically the communities directly affected, will have to question whether this is a risk worth taking.“From our perspective, all we can say is that oil companies, such as ourselves, are convinced that in this oil basin the technology for safe and environmentally acceptable oil production is well established and that the easily accessible onshore oil industry is well monitored and regulated. We are not establishing a new industry here. Planners and regulators have considerable experience to resolve all environmental and safety issues,” says Sophie Hull.

Reaping rewardsIt’s important that communities located nearby future oil fields do not feel exploited. With that in mind, Star Energy, (who have been operating in the county for some time) provide one template that other companies should be encouraged to follow. They have spent time and money to ensure that directly affected communities have benefited from the income generated by the oil. Nearby villages, such as Horndean, Tichborne and Stockbridge have been given new amenities, such as a village hall, scout hut and children’s play area. At the moment, no one knows for sure just how many wells will end up being sunk in Hampshire. It’s likely that more will but the eventual number will depend on a variety of factors. What does seem certain is that in the coming years the fact that we have a resource that is in demand and becoming scarcer by the day, means that interest in developing the oil fields of Hampshire is not going to go away.

Share your thoughtsAre you for or against more potential oil field sites in the county? We would love to hear your thoughts. Visit hampshire.great britishlife.co.uk or email claire.pitcher@archant.co.uk

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Oil – the facts• Oil has been used for more than 5,000 years (ancient Babylonians and Sumerians had used crude oil).• Oil consumption is biggest in the USA where daily consumption passes 19.5 million barrels.• Oil’s biggest producer is Saudi Arabia followed by Russia.• Oil reserves refer to portions of oil in place that are claimed to be recoverable under economic constraints. Saudi Arabia leads the way with 264.3 billion barrels, in front of Canada and Iran.• Oil together with coal and natural gas supply about 88% of the world’s energy needs.

DID YOU KNOW?In June this year there was an oil spill at Fawley refinery which affected Southampton Water. The clean-up operation to deal with spillage of 20 barrels of vacuum gas took four days and wildlife experts were concerned about the long-term effects on the fish, plants and birds that inhabit the shoreline.