UK’s Largest Refinery in Southampton Water Given go-ahead for Expansion

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Esso Petroleum Company Limited, trade name of ExxonMobil, has been given the go-ahead for a £800m expansion of the UK’s largest oil refinery, currently responsible for 20% of the UK’s refinery capacity, in Fawley.

ExxonMobil’s proposed development consists of a hydrogen plant and a hydrotreater unit as well as a diesel storage tank, which would increase the refinery’s output of ultra-low sulphur petroleum by up to 45% and reduce the UK’s need for diesel imports. In 2017, the UK imported around 50% of its diesel, and the Fawley refinery Manager, Simon Downing, told Fawley Parish Council:

The latest standards for diesel in the UK require such fuel to produce ultra-low sulphur emissions. Fawley currently exports some higher sulphur diesel that we are unable to treat to meet UK specifications, and imports ultra-low sulphur diesel to meet the UK demand.

Mr Downing continued:

“While the use of carbon intensive fuels will reduce over time in line with Government policy and in order for the UK to meet the 2050 Paris treaty climate commitments, this is a transition over a period of 30 years. … Although electric vehicles are gaining popularity, they currently account for a very small portion of the overall vehicle population. We anticipate that diesel vehicles, including hybrids, are likely to continue to play a prominent role for many years to come during the transition period.”

Whilst the project promises economic benefits to the refinery and surrounding area, which many locals are pleased about, it draws into question the priority of mitigating the effects of climate change which will be felt most severely and eminently in the global south. It has drawn opposition by environmental campaigners, begging the question as to whether the oil industry’s interests are serving profit over climate justice.

The local campaign group Save Our Shores called on Fawley Parish Council, as well as lobbying New Forest District Council, to reject the application on the grounds of employment and environmental concerns.

One campaigner told the FPC:

“Although ExxonMobil’s press release indicated there could be 1000 new jobs, their Planning Statement states otherwise: “only a negligible increase in existing staff numbers” will be needed for long-term operation and; “on average there will be 196 temporary jobs. A “proportion” of which will be sourced from outside the area because of the expertise needed. … The fact that the air quality already exceeds healthy standards is not a convincing argument for ignoring further increases of these same pollutants. For example, Sulphur Dioxide in this area is currently at 7 micro-grams per cubic metre of air”

Another campaigner made the point:

“[T]he diesel demand that underpins the justification within the planning application, does not take into account the likely significant decline in diesel demand resulting from new environmental legislation, regulations and targets that will be required to meet commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as the government’s own targets.

The emphasis on the fact that UK diesel consumption will not change, disregards the possibility that global consumption might change as a result of the new diesel refinery. … In the UK, diesel saw a 29.6% drop in new vehicle registrations in 2018, as compared to 2017, while petrol climbed 8.62%, Hybrid Electric Vehicles rose by a marked 22.3% and Battery Electric Vehicles (zero-carbon) increased by 14% on 2017’s sales.”

During the public consultation phase, local residents made 115 comments opposing the application and only 8 comments in support. Many telling concerns over worsening noise and air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Others mentioned the climate emergency declared earlier in this year by MPs in Parliament as well as Hampshire County Council, Southampton City Council and other local authorities such as Eastleigh Borough Council and the consequential 2030 targets. It is unclear what weight the comments were given by the District Council in making their decision as both Fawley Parish Council (unanimously) and local MP for New Forest East, Julian Lewis, backed the proposal which was subsequently passed in the NFDC meeting, 15 votes to one. 

The refinery says it prides itself on its dedication to health and safety and the environment, stating: ‘Our award-winning commitment to safety has been recognised many times, both within the industry, and by independent safety experts‘. However, its past record also includes some compromising incidents. In 2008,  workers’ fears that a major accident could occur at Fawley were uncovered by a leaked Health and Safety executive (HSE) report, revealing ageing infrastructure, poor maintenance, under-reporting of incidents and a workplace “blame culture” causing concerns, according to the Daily Echo. And in 2010, The ExxonMobil refinery was responsible for a toxic oil leak in Southampton Water when about 20 barrels (400 gallons) of vacuum gas oil were spilled resulting in a £10,000 fine.

The Corporation made international headlines when a scandal was revealed in recent years – it’s early company Exxon, founding member of the Global Climate Coalition which lobbied against greenhouse gas emission regulation and publicly undermined climate science, covered up its own research from the 1970s and 80s which concluded its industry’s activities would be detrimental to the global climate in years to come.

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News & Investigations Editor 2019-20. I'm a serial Netflix-binger, writer and big time radio nerd. I like politics and comedy (the two seem to be more blurred nowadays) as well as Sci-Fi and 'geek culture'. Video essays are my current obsession. Studying Natural Sciences at Uni of Southampton.

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