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Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Wednesday, 16 June 2010 13:18 UK
Dorset's 'oil boom'?

By Alex Bushill
Today programme

Oil pumps or "nodding donkies" on Wytch Farm oil field, near Wareham, Dorset,
BP's Wytch Farm site is the largest onshore oil field in western Europe

Could Dorset - the county of Thomas Hardy, rolling chalk hills and the rugged Jurassic Coast - be about to follow Saudi Arabia and Texas and become a big-league player in the oil business?

Over the past few years there has been an oil rush in continental Europe, with major oil fields discovered in Germany and Poland. And now the UK - specifically Dorset - could be about to follow suit.

The number of inland exploration licences granted each year by the UK government has more than quadrupled over the last decade, and a new oil strike in the county may have the potential to transform its economy.

It is a little-known fact, but Dorset is already home to the largest onshore oil field in western Europe: Wytch Farm.

Operated by BP, whose own continuing problems with an undersea well in the Gulf of Mexico remain headline news, the advantages of an onshore site are clear: it is cheaper, safer and, with better technology, more and more onshore oil can be drilled for.

But it is another site, on a cliff-top site overlooking Kimmeridge Bay where the UK's oldest oil well produces just 80 barrels a day, which is raising hopes of an oil rush in the area.

David Brunell, who owns an excavation company, has discovered seven potential multi-million barrel oil fields at the site which he believes could be "a very, very commercial situation for all people involved".

And he believes the current economic and environmental climate means that onshore drilling has never been more attractive.

"Times have moved on," he says. "We're in a very, very modern age with all different types of technology coming into focus where they can now recover the difference between 5% to 20%. On the economics, very big."

"And this is what is so good about onshore. It's quick, it's clean, it's easy. There is risk, but there's less risk."

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But local opinion is split on the prospect of an oil boom at Kimmeridge Bay, which lies on the Jurassic Coast, which is both a World Heritage Site and an area of outstanding natural beauty.

"It's a fantastically beautiful setting here, lovely beaches, lots of wildlife, including lots of seabirds, and it doesn't really let itself to a very heavy industry," says one local resident.

BP's Wytch Farm operation seems to have won over local opinion by, among other things, screening the site with woodland and building an earth embankment to contain any possible leak.

"We don't really welcome anything like this but we do accept it," says local environmentalist Dr John Larkum. "And provided it's properly managed, then it's just something we have to live with these days."

With some oil analysts predicting that prices could double in the next two years, the difficult trade-off between environment and economy currently being faced by the people of Dorset may become one which is ever more common.

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