The highly controversial process of hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – could be coming to several sites around Lewes.
Information unearthed by the Liberal Democrats has revealed two exploration licences for sites close to Lewes and one for a site in Ringmer on a list of 31 licences for oil and gas exploration in East Sussex.
The information was discovered by Rosalyn St Pierre, the county councillor representing Ringmer and Lewes Bridge.
It followed a visit she made with another Lewes councillor, Amanda Dean, to the high-profile protest in Balcombe against oil and gas exploration by the Cuadrilla company.
“I’m furious that no-one has bothered to tell us about this,” Cllr St Pierre said. “I realise these are only exploration licences at this stage, but that could mean we’re two steps away from actual fracking.
“Given the potential implications, it’s pretty disgraceful that we have had to discover this by ferreting around a government department’s website.”
Fracking is a process by which water is injected at high pressure into the ground to fracture seams well below ground level. The fracturing releases gas stored in shale strata. The technique has been used in the UK since the 1980s for extracting various energy sources, but until last year not gas.
Cllr St Pierre dug out the latest list of exploration licences granted by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, dated August 9.
It shows the original applicant companies but gives no other details except for a grid reference for each licensed site.
She and Lib Dem colleagues took the grid references from the August 9 list, and identified the local sites as being in Ringmer, Swanborough and Beddingham.
The Ringmer site is an application by Conoco Phillips, the Houston-based multinational oil and gas exploration giant. The two Lewes sites list D’Arcy as the applicant.
The licences give the company the right to explore to see whether there is oil or gas at the sites, but they cannot do this without planning permission. If they find oil or gas, they then have to apply for a mineral extraction consent before they can bring it to the surface. Both consents are given by East Sussex County Council.
Cllr St Pierre was active on the fracking issue in 2011, when she persuaded councillors that any applications that come to East Sussex County Council have to be decided by the full council and cannot be delegated to officers.
“This isn’t just about having a well and a flare in a local beauty spot,” she said, “there are masses of much wider implications. The River Ouse is highly stressed, and managing water supply for new housing is a major challenge.
“Local water companies have said they cannot treat the waste water that results from fracking. Most of the water used in fracking is pumped underground to force the gas and oil out, and stays there. If any of this water spills or is forced through the rock to the water supply aquifers or to the surface, this would be a major problem.”