Councillors give go-ahead for £800m new diesel plant at oil refinery

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Fawley oil refinery
Fawley oil refinery seen from Southampton Water

THE green light has been given for a new £800m diesel plant at Fawley oil refinery which managers say will create and protect more than 2,000 jobs.

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This morning (Wednesday) New Forest district councillors voted 15-1 in favour of the scheme which has been backed by the parish council and New Forest East MP Julian Lewis but opposed by 115 objectors over noise, fumes and environmental impact.

The project includes building a pair of 50-metre-high chimneys and will expand “ultra-low” sulphur diesel production at the facility by almost 45% – around 38,000 barrels a day. The proposed location is about 500 metres from the nearest homes.

The application came from global petrochemicals giant ExxonMobil, whose subsidiary Esso runs the refinery, the biggest in the UK. It said the new plant would reduce the UK’s reliance on imported diesel.

At a meeting on Wednesday, refinery manager Simon Downing argued that in the next 20 years transport fuels will still be a critical part of the economy and CO2 emissions would be reduced by producing diesel in the UK rather than importing it.

The diesel will be distributed via an underground network of pipelines reaching as far as Birmingham, Heathrow and Gatwick airports, he said.

A report to the planning committee advised approval, and senior planning officer Ian Rayner described the oil refinery as a site of paramount importance to the local and national economy.

Around 700 jobs would be created over the two-year construction period, he said – on top of the 2,000 jobs already at the site, according to Mr Downing.

Although the two chimneys would be visible from some vantage points, they would not be harmful to the local area in the context of an industrial site, said Mr Rayner.

The report said the impact on air quality would be “minimal”, with noise and vibration within “acceptable limits”.

However, the plans were opposed by objector Sara Pascoe, from Bournemouth-based environmental group Save Our Shores, who likened the scheme to trying to get addicts off heroin by creating more drugs.

She urged Esso to put money into hydrogen technologies instead and said: “We are very frightened and feel that investing in the very industry that is destroying our environment is not wise.”

She doubted the plant would create as many jobs as claimed and countered that diesel use was projected to drop “dramatically” over the next 25 years. The government may ban diesel vehicles as soon as 2030, she said, as electric becomes more popular.

Concerns raised in 115 objections lodged with NFDC included pollution, noise, global warming and the risk of explosive accidents.

However, they managed to persuade only one councillor to vote against the application, Cllr Fran Carpenter.

Cllr Malcolm Wade said: “We have to be pragmatic about this and, sadly, electric transport is not going to take off as quickly as we would like it to.

“Sadly everything we wear, eat and use comes on an HGV and all HGVS are run on diesel. This scheme will protect this site and its future in the interim.”

Cllr David Hawkins said: “We have to be realistic about climate change and just how long it will take to bring these new technologies forward.”

Cllr Allan Glass said the scheme would be a stepped improvement towards clearer air. He added: “It is not as far as we want to go but it is a step on the ladder. The company should be applauded for this.”

Cllr Bennison said: “It can only be a good thing that this will enable us to produce diesel in this country rather than importing it from abroad.”

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said afterwards: “We are encouraged by today’s meeting of the New Forest District Council and expect to receive formal approval for our development plans for the Fawley site in the coming days.

“The proposed development would help to secure future employment for 2,000 people on site and the many thousands more in the New Forest economy who serve the site and its workers.

“It would also have a positive impact on UK energy security.”

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