Plans for an oil well on Leith Hill in Surrey – a top riding spot and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – have met opposition from local mountain bikers. Europa Oil & Gas want to construct a 120-foot-high drilling rig on a two-acre site in a prominent position visible from the North Downs.
They say they will drill a single exploratory borehole for "short-term testing for hydrocarbons" and within three years the area will either be restored to forestry or turned into a car park. But locals say the operation will cause huge disruption, and they fear that if oil is found the drillsite will become a permanent fixture.
Europa have submitted a planning application to Surrey County Council explaining their plans for Waterden Wood/Bury Hill Wood near Coldharbour Lane at the top of Leith Hill. They say the drilling rig would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week and would be lit at night. There would be four gas and oil flare units, generators and buildings including storerooms and staff accommodation.
The land lies immediately south of the existing Brockham Oilfield, and according to Europa's website the area "is thought to be one of the best undrilled UK onshore structures".
The company have issued an artist's impression showing the tower as little more than a speck on the horizon, but local cyclists say the drillsite would be a blot on the landscape and could block access to trails on the hill. Nearby residents are also worried about an increase in lorries carrying materials, water and equipment to and from the site, and have started a campaign against the rig.
Europa Oil & Gas's artist's impression shows the proposed oil rig as a speck on the horizon
Dan Webb, from cycle shop Head For The Hills in nearby Dorking, said Leith Hill was the main riding spot in the South East, and was popular with people from London as well as locals. He said the shop had emailed customers about the plans and had a mixed response.
Matt Addison, from local mountain bike website Muddymoles, told BikeRadar: "This application is a big deal from the point of view that in the South East there aren't many areas that are untouched. The reason people are twitchy is they're worried about creeping development. A company does something like that and then another one comes along, and it all starts to eat away at the Surrey hills.
"From a mountain biking point of view, we have people travelling a long way to ride in that area. We get riders coming up from Brighton, south-west London and Hampshire. It's basically the first place outside London that's got any decent riding. We get all sorts of riders in the Surrey Hills – from cross-country riders to freeride types – and everyone comes because the landscape is untouched and un-industrialised."
Matt said the approach roads were unsuitable for heavy traffic, and disruption caused by the drillsite could discourage people from visiting the area. On the website, he described the plans as "a gross intrusion into the area for residents".
He wrote: "The proposal will feature 24-hour lighting and provision for oil and gas flaring, plus plenty of space for accommodating plant workers and suchlike, and a flashing aircraft warning light on the rig. Who fancies night riding round that particular neck of the woods?
The oil drilling rig – which won't necessarily be of the type pictured – will be lit 24/7
"Initially for three years, this could easily turn into a longer term situation with no guarantee that remedial work to return the land to forest will be forthcoming. In any case, it puts the area out of riding use for years."
Europa's managing director Paul Barrett said campaigners had got the "wrong end of the stick" about some aspects of the planning application. He said: "The planning application talks about a three-year period but we'll only be drilling for about a month to six weeks. We've said three years because we don't know when the rig will be available. I don't think it will impact that much.
"We're in the middle of the consultation period so we're waiting for the comments to come back and then we'll address whatever concerns people have. It's taken us two years of work with consultants to get to this stage."
The deadline for comments on the application has been extended to 23 April. To have your say and view the planning application, visit Surrey County Council's website. To find out more about the campaign against the drilling rig, visit www.thevirtualvillage.com/oilwell.cfm.
The Surrey Hills are popular with mountain bikers and road riders alike