The UK has given permission to start drilling for gas at a beauty spot to the south of London.
UK Oil & Gas will be allowed to drill at the site at Loxley to find out how big the natural gasfield is that sits underneath the rolling Surrey Hills.
The decision has angered local campaigners, environmental activists, Surrey County Council, which has twice blocked the project, and the local Conservative MP, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Britain is trying to develop oil and gas resources to bolster its energy independence and security, having been stung by soaring prices that are fuelling a record squeeze on living standards.
The country is also trying to achieve net zero goals and climate change ambitions that mean new fossil fuel projects attract critics.
Last week, Shell won official consent to develop the Jackdaw natural gasfield in the North Sea, which the company said had the potential to account for 6.5 per cent of the country’s gas production.
It also announced a 25 per cent windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas companies, although it also introduced an 80 per cent investment allowance, meaning energy companies can reduce the tax they pay if they commit to capital expenditure.
“Backing UK domestic gas makes strategic, economic and environmental good sense,” said Stephen Sanderson, UK Oil & Gas’s chief executive. “We look forward to moving the Loxley project forwards and to working constructively with the local community.”
Development at the Loxley site, which is on the edge of the picturesque Surrey Hills area, has faced fierce resistance.
Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at CPRE, a countryside charity, said the approval was “absurd” and “guaranteed to provoke fury and despair”.
“It’s extraordinary, given the urgent need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, that the government sees fit to greenlight a gasfield and damage the setting of an area of outstanding natural beauty," he said.
Gas was first found on the site in the 1980s but no further work was done. UK Oil & Gas has pushed for permission to develop the site since 2020.
The company estimates the area could hold 43bn cubic feet of gas and the drill decision will allow them to confirm that.
The plan was rejected by Surrey County Council, but a public inquiry recommended the drill should go ahead. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities then approved the decision.
It accepted drilling would involve “a significant level of landscape and visual impacts from the proposal”, including the loss of hedgerows.
It said the proposal “would result in harm to the landscape character and appearance of the area and degrade the qualities of the setting of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.