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Increased Exploration Darkens England's Golden Belt

March 14, 1985|From the Christian Science Monitor

ALTON, HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND — What do sleepy, secluded villages and hamlets like Ash, Normandy, Humbly Grove and Dunsfold in the south of England have in common with the wild, wind-swept North Sea?

Answer: oil.

Everybody knows that North Sea oil is what has propelled Britain into the position of the world's fifth-largest oil producer.

What is not so well known is that oil wells are poping up in a petroleum zone that stretches in a so-called Golden Belt across almost the whole of southern England, from Kent in the east to Devon in the west. The latest and most promising finds are concentrated in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.

Like the North Sea

This entire zone contains oil-source rocks similar to those found in the oil-producing areas of the North Sea.

But onshore oil in England is a mere drop in the ocean compared to North Sea oil. According to 1982 figures, Britain extracted some 115 million metric tons from the North Sea in 1983, compared to only 250,000 metric tons from onshore oil. Stark comparisons are misleading, however. North Sea oil is expected to peak in 1985-86. Major oil fields there are already in decline.

This is expected to intensify exploration of oil on land, particularly since the cost of drilling for oil onshore is one-tenth to one-twentieth of the cost of drilling in the North Sea. Drilling in the North Sea calls for extremely expensive rigs that can be anchored to the sea's deep floor and can withstand its fierce weather.

The main discoveries in the south are British Petroleum's Wytch Farm in Dorset, Conoco's Palmers Wood and Baxter's Copse in Surrey and Sussex, Carless ExploratiOn's Xumbly Grove and Horndean in Hampshire, and an Amoco field in Stockbridge. When production drilling begins in all these areas, it will boost British oil exports and line government coffers.

England's biggest onshore field, Wytch Farm, which is respectable by any international onshore measurement, is producing 4,500 barrels a day now with maximum capacity at about 40,000 barrels a day. Wytch Farm--which began producing oil a decade ago after a 1973 oil discovery--is expected to garner $2.49 billion for the government in taxes before it dries up.

None of that cuts much ice with villagers, who can't become overnight millionaires even if oil is found on their lands.

Rights Belong to State

Unlike the United States, all oil and mineral rights belong to the state in Britain, although there are some compensations such as lease payments and a promise to restore the land.

The absence of windfalls to landowners tends to increase environmental objections, especially in England's rural south, which, having largely escaped widespread industrialization, has never shown the tolerance for industrialization that other older oil-bearing regions have displayed in the Midlands and the north of England.

Promising oil finds may have brought dozens of oil companies to southern England, but they have also brought a packet of environmental problems with them. Stepped-up drilling in the south, and the discovery of oil fields in the largely rural counties of Dorset, Hampshire, and Surrey have fueled speculation that southern England could become another Texas.

Conoco is having a tough fight to win over the residents of the villages of Ash and Normandy in its proposal to drill for oil at Highfield Copse. June Baldwin, a Normandy resident, claims "This particular copse has nightingales and they're quite rare, I believe."

"They can back it up before they even start," says a shop attendant in Normandy, objecting to the intrusion of a 164-foot-high rig on the rural landscape. "We want none of it around here, as 99.9% of the people have said at meetings around here."

Oil company spokesmen say the rig will only be there for about a month and that most activity except for initial drilling is unobtrusive.

Along Christmaspie Lane, householders have stuck anti-oil-drilling signs in their windows. "No oil drilling in Ash-Normandy," the signs declare. A big red banner on a nearby street proclaims, "No to oil drilling. Support your local action group." So far the Surrey County Council and the Guildford Borough Council have backed the residents' objections.

Vigorous Objection

About 20 minutes away, at Surrey's Dunsfold, there is vigorous objection to Conoco's application to develop oil and gas at one end of the local airport.

Coming from the politically conservative southern counties, these protests have embarrassed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government. Yet, resident opinion is by no means unanimous.

"It's not going to hurt anyone," says a Dunsfold restaurant owner. "It's right at the end of the gyrport. Mind you, it won't do any of the roads any good." Then, on further reflection, she added, "Of course, it might smell. Still, can't be any worse than the pig farm across the street."

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