Since I posted about the Europa Oil & Gas proposal to drill for oil in Coldharbour village I’ve watched this subject being talked about across several different sites now and it always seems to boil down to two polarised views. I’ve tried not to get involved, feeling I’ve ‘done my bit’ in publicising the issue but feel I need to comment on some of the recurrent themes.
Before all that I’d just like to make clear I was never asked to raise this issue to publicise the planning protest. The information was sent to me and I thought others would like to know about it. Since then BikeRadar have contacted me for comment and there’s been at least a couple of Singletrack threads on the subject. I am most certainly not speaking on behalf of all mountain bikers on this issue, this is all ‘personal viewpoint’ stuff but I think it’s worth tackling some of the more extremely expressed arguments.
Despite much support (as evidenced at the Virtual Village), in basic terms there seems to be some strong views against the protest too, mostly from people outside the area. Many have said there is going to be limited impact on the area so why worry? This is normally closely followed by a charge of NIMBY-ism and hypocrisy at using oil but not wanting it prospected from our local area, followed by the view that if things are cleared up properly it’s all OK.
Taking the limited impact argument first, it’s worth pointing out that in fact the impact is far from limited. Starting with the approach roads to Coldharbour, these are unique and consist of narrow roads in deep sandstone cuttings with ancient trees bordering them. To cater for this exercise in prospecting these roads will have to be fundamentally changed to allow heavy goods vehicles through.
There’s also the fact that at present from Coldharbour village the night time view is proper dark, unusual to say the least in Surrey. 24 hour lighting and gas flaring will change this somewhat. Most people in this part of Surrey live here because the area is unspoiled; in contrast to many who scoff at the 4×4 brigade, many local people are closely connected to the land – farmers and related services, rangers, horse riders and so on. They spend a good deal of time in the local environment from what I can see. So the impact is only really limited if you’re someone who rarely visits the area; if you live nearby it’s a big deal.
There’s also the fact that the Surrey Hills are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The purpose of the Planning procedure is to ultimately balance the needs of many against the needs to the few directly impacted. In this case, it has already been determined that the needs of the many include protecting this particular landscape. You can’t logically say this is protected except for this bit here. Oh and this bit here. And this bit too. It seems to me that the only people benefiting from this are the oil companies involved.
On the other hand you might say yes but we all need and use oil. I would never argue against this fact and have no wish to be drawn into a political argument about the West ‘exploiting’ the Middle East for oil. The simple fact is, oil is readily available elsewhere and there’s an established infrastructure for supplying it, accepting that much of this infrastructure has caused considerable harm to the local environment it’s in.
Regardless, the quantities delivered from the Surrey Hills will make negligible impact in sating our economy’s demand for oil, will not alter the Middle East situation one iota but will certainly damage an area that is in need of protecting; and of course it will go to make an oil company richer. It’s a poor trade-off in my view and the argument that we should ruin our own doorstep because we’ve already ruined those elsewhere is a specious one.
Then there’s the old NIMBY charge. Well, duh! Of course people are being NIMBY about this, that’s the point. A planning protest is always by definition going to be a protest against something happening right here, right now. Where’s the shame in that? Large parts of this country have suffered through inappropriate development and it makes sense to try and protect what remains, especially in the South East. We may not have been as blatantly ravaged as parts of the industrialised North, but we have population and traffic pressures that mean our towns and cities are gradually melding into one vast sprawling mess of development. Allowing developments such as this is the kind of creeping development that nibbles away at what little space is left; again, to few people’s advantage.
Think also from a mountain biking perspective how you’d feel if your favourite trail or trail centre was threatened because someone thought there might be oil there; or perhaps someone would like to build a housing estate there. You would probably have something to say on the subject; or maybe you’d remember you’re not a NIMBY (no way!) and just lie down for who ever wants to walk all over you? If you genuinely would not fight any proposal to turn your local trails into whatever someone thought they could make money at, fine, use NIMBY as a pejorative as much as you like. But it’s a tough claim.
Finally, it should be noted that there’s a widespread belief that the oil company will return the land to it’s previous condition when they have finished. This is not as likely as you may think. First of all, the oil company (Europa Oil & Gas) have suggested they’d be likely to turn it into a car park. Why? well, if you’ve been digging for oil and possibly spilled a drop or two of the magic hydrocarbons what better way to avoid your responsibilities than to cover the surface with – yup that’s right, a product made out of hydrocarbons! It’s just fanciful to think that we will have pristine forest back when the drilling is over.
So to sum up I hear people’s criticisms. I hear NIMBY. I hear that relatively few are impacted and I hear that it’s OK if the land is ‘made good’ afterward. I hope I’ve shown you that these suggestions are not as simple as they appear – they’re seductive, they seem plausible on the surface but dig deeper (deeper than the oil!) and think about what’s really in the long term interest of the Surrey Hills.