PLANS to explore for oil in Poole Bay are currently causing controversy.

Corallian Energy could start drilling as early as this month, if it wins government approval.

The proposal has proved controversial, with concerns raised about the consequences if something went wrong. Dorset Wildlife Trust has praised some moves to limit the impact on the natural environment, but remains concerned about the impact on species including snort-snouted seahorses.

It is not the first time a vigorous debate has taken place over the possibility of siting rigs in oil-rich Poole bay.

It has been known for decades that Dorset was potentially oil-rich. Oil shale was extracted from the cliffs near Kimmeridge in the 17th century. Experimental oil wells were drilled near Kimmeridge in 1936 without success and it was not until the 1950s that crude oil was discovered there.

In 1974, the Gas Council revealed that an exploratory well drilled to 3,500ft the previous Christmas at Wytch Farm proved capable of producing 32,000 tonnes a year. It was the biggest single well in Britain apart from the North Sea, the Echo reported at the time.

In 1975, Bournemouth council received assurance from the Gas Council that plans for drilling in Dorset did not include Bournemouth. But that did not remain the case for every long.

In January 1976, the Echo reported that “a big exploration programme for oil and gas is under way in Poole and Christchurch bays”.

A 100ft exploration vessel, Caribe Tide, was exploring an area totalling 450 miles, from the Isle of Wight to Portland, taking in two bays and a sea corridor. Its technology could record the rock profile up to 25,000ft below the sea bed.

The exploration did not please local fishermen, who complained they had been kept “in the dark”.

That July, the Echo said there were oil rigs planned for the English Channel.

The Echo noted: “An oil strike on a North Sea scale off the Dorset coast could turn the holiday playground around Bournemouth-Poole into a booming mini-Texas of the 1980s.”

In 1990, BP Exploration proposed something more radical than just oil rigs. It suggested a 15 acre artificial island, to be built barely a mile off the coast of Bournemouth.

The island would stand 33ft above low tide level, landscaped to hide everything except the drilling rig mast. The island would be linked to Wytch Farm by pipeline.

BP hoped to start production in 1995, but an act of parliament would be required for the island to be built. There was an outcry over the idea, and the plan was dropped in 1991.

In February 1992, BP revealed an alternative plan to exact oil from under Poole Bay. Technical advances would allow it to drill under Poole Bay from the Purbeck coastline instead.

By May that same year, Elf Enterprise was conducting a series of tests which could lead to an exploratory rig two miles off Hengistbury Head.

Its survey vessel Flunder was towing gear almost two miles in length. Local fishermen were concerned and tried blockading the survey work, before settling for compensation of £4,000 each.

The campaign group Save Our Seaside, which had campaigned against the island scheme, announced it would fight other oil exploration schemes.

By January 1993, 19 firms had applied to explore for oil in the area. Richard Williams of Save Our Seaside warned that “the Pleasure Gardens would be black with oil” if a spillage on the scale of that month’s Braer disaster happened off Bournemouth. The MV Braer was an oil tanker which ran aground during storms off Shetland.

Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, who had backed the campaign against the artificial island, wrote to the Echo: “As someone with family connections in Dorset, who has visited the area many times, the prospect of a Texas-style coastline filled with a plethora of rigs is not one which I would wish to see.”

But in 1993, building began on the largest oil rig ever seen in Dorset, Penrog 85.

It stood 60 metres above sea level and was boring three wells under Poole Bay from the Goathorn peninsula near Studland as part of the Wytch Farm development.

It took three days to tow the rig from Great Yarmouth to a point five miles off Hengistsbury Head, ready to begin drilling for Elf.

The Echo was taken to the rig, where 59 workers were working 12-hour shifts. They were taken to the rig by boat from Poole, working 28 days on, followed by 28 days off. Between shifts, they had access to a gym and 70 videotapes.

The jack-up rig had 343 legs which wound down into the sand. It was built to withstand storms of up to 100mph.

It was far from the last mission to find oil under Poole Bay.

But, as the world increasingly looked for alternatives to fossil fuels, every attempt to find “black gold” under the coast would bring more controversy.