The surprising story of oil in Dorset.

[Please read the important amendment at the end of this article]

A few months ago, I visited Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I went  to look at the oil well on the cliffs above the beach and wrote about my experience.  The Kimmeridge oil reserve is quite small but further east there are huge additional reserves of oil extending for several kilometres under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay.  I wanted to write about these much larger deposits and the environmental effects of extraction: my article, which also takes another look at some of the Kimmeridge story, appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. Here is the article:

It’s difficult to believe but one of the most beautiful parts of Dorset in the south west of the UK is home to the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe. And yet the day to day impact on most residents and on the local environment is minimal. Perhaps the Dorset oil experience can help us predict the potential environmental effects of shale gas extraction by fracking in other parts of the UK? Let’s look at the story of oil in Dorset and see what we can learn.

“Kimmeridge Coal”

Medieval times were harsh for most people but if you lived near Kimmeridge Bay in the Isle of Purbeck, you had one thing going for you; some of the rocks exposed in the cliffs would burn so you had a ready-made fuel for heating and cooking. The locals called it “Kimmeridge Coal” and it didn’t matter that it smelt awful, it was available and it was free. The same logic drove Sir William Clavell in the 17th century to set up alum works at Kimmeridge using the fuel. His efforts came to nothing because of patent restrictions so he turned to making salt by boiling sea water and subsequently he set up a glass works, but neither enterprise prospered.

“Kimmeridge Coal” is found in bands of bituminous shale in the cliffs around Kimmeridge Bay but further exploitation of the material had to wait until the 19th century when it was realised that useful hydrocarbons might be extractable. Processing plants were set up at Weymouth and at Wareham making varnish, grease, pitch, naphtha, paraffin and paraffin wax and in 1848 the street lights of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps powered by gas derived from the shale. The industry never prospered, possibly because the high sulphur content made the gas unsuitable for domestic use.

Kimmeridge oil shale is a useful material but it is not a source of conventional crude oil. Ironically, the first discovery of crude oil in Dorset also occurred at Kimmeridge Bay but it comes from rocks lying well below the shale deposits.

The Kimmeridge “nodding donkey”

Oil pump
The Kimmeridge nodding donkey

The search for oil in Dorset began in the 1930s but it was not until 1959 that the first well producing oil and gas was discovered below Kimmeridge Bay. The well is extracted by a single beam “nodding donkey” pump on the cliffs above the Bay that has worked continuously for more than 50 years; it is the oldest working oil well in the UK and the “nodding donkey” is now part of the local scenery. The Kimmeridge well produced 350 barrels of oil a day at its peak but this has now declined to a fifth of that level. Although the Kimmeridge reservoir is not large, the discovery prompted the search for other oil deposits in Dorset.

The largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe – hidden near Poole Harbour

The energy crises of the 1970s led to further exploration in Dorset and in 1974, oil and gas were discovered by the Gas Council at Wytch Farm on the southern side of Poole Harbour. Production started in 1979 and nowadays the Anglo-French company Perenco owns the majority stake in the oil field. There are three large reservoirs of oil 1-2 km below the sea, extending up to 10 km under Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island, Sandbanks and to the south of Bournemouth. Peak production was in 1997 at 110,000 barrels of oil per day; current levels are about 18,000 barrels per day. The field also produces natural gas (for domestic use) and liquid petroleum gas.

nodding donkeys Wytch Farm
Some of the Wytch Farm nodding donkeys (photo courtesy of Perenco)


Furzey Island
Furzey Island in Poole Harbour showing the “hidden” oil wells (photo courtesy of Perenco)


There are 12 well sites distributed around Wytch Farm, the Goathorn Peninsula and Furzey island from which more than 100 wells have been drilled. There is also a gathering station where the products of the wells are collected, processed and distributed. This is a large industrial enterprise, the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe and the second largest consumer of electricity in the South of England (after Heathrow Airport).

Hengistbury Head looking west
Poole Bay viewed from Hengistbury Head – oil reservoirs and long distance drills extend under the sea 1-2 km below the surface (from Wikipedia).
The paradox is that this industrial complex operates in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so the site has been developed with this is mind. Buildings are on sites that have been excavated to reduce height and are screened by trees. Facilities are painted a dull brown and the number of well sites has been minimised by drilling long distances horizontally away from the well site in to the oil deposits; until 2008 Wytch Farm held the world record for the longest drill extending 10.1 km under Poole Bay. In consequence, this large industrial complex has minimal impact on the surrounding countryside and most people are unaware of the activity.

Goathorn Peninsula
An oil rig on the Goathorn Peninsula used for long distance directional drilling (Photo from Wikipedia, taken in 2006) .


Lessons from Dorset oil

Wytch Farm is a great success story, both in terms of the oil and gas produced and the minimal environmental impact. Some have used the Wytch Farm experience to suggest that fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) in other parts of the UK will also have a minimal environmental impact, even suggesting, incorrectly, that fracking has already occurred at Wytch Farm.

Although similar drilling technology is used to extract crude oil and to release shale gas, fracking uses large volumes of high pressure liquid (mostly water) to create fissures in low permeability rock and this has not been carried out at Wytch Farm. Also each potential fracking site is likely to be unique and different from Wytch Farm in terms of the density of wells required, the density of population and the nature of the countryside. Dorset oil has been managed to minimise environmental impact but it would be wrong to use the Dorset oil experience to predict the general environmental impact of fracking elsewhere.

There is, of course, one important issue I have not considered here:  should we continue to extract and use oil given the need to prevent global climate change?  Take a look at the complementary article for my views on that.

Important amendment:  In September 2018 it was revealed that the Kimmeridge oil pump has been legally  leaking the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere for nearly 60 years.  The story is covered here.  This disclosure changes very considerably my view of the environmental impact of the Kimmeridge oil pump.

16 thoughts on “The surprising story of oil in Dorset.”

  1. A really interesting read. Ironically the nodding donkeys at Wytch Farm are the whole reason I live in this part of the world. Back in 1976 my dad worked for British Gas and was the project manager for laying the pipelines to take gas from the oil field across the country. I visited the nodding donkeys on a cold winter’s day when it was snowing in 1976/77 – just one single track and a couple of donkeys nodding away with a small fence around them! Sadly Wytch Farm has had some bad press in the last few years as the equipment seems to be getting pretty old, and there have been a few leaks. See Hopefully they have this under control now – but it is a worry in such an environmentally sensitive area.


    1. Thanks Jane, how interesting about your father. Thanks for the link about the oil leaks. As you say, I hope it is under control, otherwise the area will very quickly be damaged and Perenco will lose their good reputation.


  2. I really enjoy your writing on this topic, Philip. I’ve done some writing about the oil Los Angeles is sitting on. The Beverly Hills oil fields fascinate me. The oil in Dorset is juxtaposed against the beauty of the cliffs and it’s interesting to me to note that the impact on that beauty is minimal. The environmental concerns are always with us. I am very happy to promote alternative fuels, but I don’t know that in my lifetime we’ll have made much progress and movement away from oil!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Debra, I had a look at your articles on Beverly Hills oil and Huntington Beach nodding donkeys; fascinating and a real revelation to me. Here are links for anyone else who is interested:

      I knew about the La Brea tarpits but I had no idea about the extent of the oil and infrastructure under Los Angeles. The tension between oil and environment at Huntington Beach is similar to the Kimmeridge beach situation.
      Even if we dont give up oil any time soon, it would be good to see more use of renewables.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Philip, how nice that you took the time to find the information I’d posted on the Beverly Hills oil fields and the Los Angeles deposits. I don’t think most Angelenos have any idea! The corporations go to such a great extent to hide the infrastructure behind modern facades. It’s really fascinating. I have become very interested in this topic and I receive Google alerts regularly alerting me to fracking concerns and some of the local environmental factors related to oil production. I think the interest is simply that I make “an effort” and drive a hybrid car, but goodness knows we are far from living off the grid! Yet I see our beautiful beaches and oceans, and I include a concern for Kimmeridge beach, and despair every time there is a spill or worse yet, one of the oil disasters we’ve seen in various parts of the world. Your conversation energizes me, so thank you! I enjoyed learning about Kimmeridge beach. I hope its beauty remains untarnished!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s great that Wytch Farm oil industry has worked with the environment rather than against it. I wish all human endeavours and structures could make this effort. I remain ambivalent to fracking, personally, thinking that we should be making more effort into alternative fuels to prevent climate change rather than investing in more oil and gas industries.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It is true that if you visit Kimmeridge or close to the Wytch Farm development that these oil productions are not blots in the landscape .It is concerning however to hear that the equipment is getting older and there have been some leaks. I too believe the way forward is to extend our renewable energy. I am very concerned about fracking and feel that if it was introduced the long term damage to the environment would be so much greater than we have experienced with this oil extraction. Sarah x

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A very interesting write up. I came to your pages via a course I am doing in the Open University, ‘The Earth in My Pocket’ it is an introduction to Geology. We are doing ‘oil’ this week. I’m happy to have found your blog via this way. Very interesting. Will follow and be back.


  6. Where a flat bottomed barge can lead you!

    Having lived variously in Exmouth, the Netherlands and LA I have now retired and live on Evening Hill in Poole. The daily marine traffic fascinates me. But it has taken two years to discover that the flat bottomed barge is called Furzey Squirrel. I assumed it went to Brownsea and had never head of Furzey. Today I read about the largest onshore oil site in Western Europe as well as my old LA and Huntingdon beach.
    Thank you all. For different reasons our hearts are all in the same place!


    1. Thanks for your comment. I also used to live in California and well remember the nodding donkeys there. And Evening Hill – I know it so well and that view across the Harbour. My parents used to live in Lower Parkstone and I have driven along Evening Hill many times. It’s important that we protect all of this.


  7. Hello, I’m a Yank, born in the Midwest and having lived in Houston, Texas, for 17 years have been around oil businesses. In my home state of Ohio, jut regular drilling has destroyed the underground water sources in the State’s Eastern counties – people cannot drink their well water. It’s full of methane. But my comment is on fracking, which is not regular drilling and is worse: Brits who wish to see what a shale oil production field actually looks like and what it does to the environment should look not to Wytch Field but to Alberta, Canada shale sands oil extraction fields. This area was boreal forest – ancient forests whose canopies were slowing global warming. The forests were razed – thus increasing global warming. Fracking for oil sands production has destroyed entire sections of Alberta and polluted the Athabasca River. See the pictures online of the open pits.

    All of this for an oil full of bitumen, which coats the pipelines very quickly, causing breakdowns and leaks into the soil, and in any case can only be used for diesel fuel, not gasoline. 90% of Alberta’s production runs through pipelines to coastal storage tanks in Texas ports and then is funneled onto ships to China. Almost none of it is sold in the U.S. or Canada.

    Second point: the world is running out of potable water in all countries. Fracking uses immense amounts of water which CANNOT BE REUSED except for fracking – because that water contains over 500 lethal chemicals which the oil companies have refused to name publicly even when challenged in court. Oil company field workers have died from getting this water on their skin. Migratory birds have landed in the open pits and died by the thousands. I don’t know what has happened in Lancashire since this article appeared. Do your homework – fracking is not neutral in any way – not least because it destroys fertile farm land and forests holding global warming at bay.


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