Planning approval at an onshore drilling site in Surrey did not need to take into account the climate effects of burning produced oil, a High Court judge ruled this morning.
Mrs Justice Lang was giving her reasons for refusing a judicial review of permission for extra wells and 20 years of oil production at the Horse Hill site near Gatwick Airport.
Campaigner Sarah Finch, who lives near the Horse Hill site, was seeking to challenge the decision by Surrey Council in September 2019.
She said the council broke regulations by failing to count the greenhouse gas emissions of burning oil produced at the site.
But Justice Lang rejected this argument:
“A proper interpretation of the regulations does not extend to the possible future combustion of oil by an unknown person, at an unknown time, at an unknown location, which may have no connection to the Horse Hill site.”
She said the council had complied with government policy and guidance that oil and gas “remained importance sources of UK energy and will do so during transition to a low carbon economy.”
Ruling that all the grounds for the judicial review unarguable, Justice Lang said:
“The council was entitled to grant planning permission”.
After the hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Ms Finch said she was considering an appeal:
“I’m deeply disappointed that I am not able to bring this judicial review and challenge at a public hearing the council’s decision to allow 20 years of oil production in a time of climate emergency in an earthquake area.”
“Approving more drilling at Horse Hill was a wrong decision for many reasons. I will seek legal advice on whether to appeal.”
Ms Finch also argued that the council failed to make councillors aware of evidence, which she said linked activities at Horse Hill with earthquakes in the area.
Counting greenhouse gas emissions
The case centred on which environmental impacts should have been assessed as part of the planning application and then considered by the council.
Marc Willers, QC for Ms Finch, said the council breached the regulations on environmental impact assessments by not requiring a count of indirect greenhouse gas emissions. He said:
“Where there is project for the production of hydrocarbons then the greenhouse gas impact of the use of the oil must be assessed as an indirect impact of the project.”
He said the council had originally said these climate effects should be included in the environmental statement submitted with the application. But it later changed its mind in a review of the environmental statement, he said.
“This is rather novel and ought not to be permitted.
“The environmental statement review and the planning committee acted in error in failing to consider the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the combustion of oil.”
Mr Willers said the council should also have taken into account the government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and advice by the Committee on Climate Change. The CCC had recommended that petrol and diesel powered vehicles should be phased out by 2030.
The report by a planning officer on the Horse Hill did not use these environmental policy objectives as a “yardstick” for the decision, Mr Willers said.
Harriet Townsend, barrister for Surrey County Council, said the environmental impact assessment needed to consider the project, not its product:
“There is no reason to believe that there will be any increase in greenhouse gas emissions nationwide or worldwide on the granting of this application.
“The product of this development will merge with supplies elsewhere and will need to be refined to be available for use.”
Mrs Townsend said the indirect emissions had been “scoped out” when a council officer reviewed the environmental statement. “It is wrong to say that the local authority cannot change its mind”, she said.
She added if there was no need to assess indirect greenhouse gas emissions then there was also no need to apply environmental policies to this aspect of the application.
Tim Mould QC, for the site operator Horse Hill Developments Limited (HHDL), said:
“The project was the winning of hydrocarbons. It was not the subsequent use of that product when it had gone to market.”
He said the planning officer has described the issues with “great clarity” and had satisfied the law.
Many local people raised concerns that the Horse Hill site was linked to a series of earthquakes in the area.
At the meeting which decided the Horse Hill planning application, the council said the issue of seismicity induced by oil and gas activities “fell outside its remit”.
This was “erroneous advice”, Mr Willers said. The concerns of local residents were acknowledged by planning officers but not addressed, he said.
On this issue, Justice Lang ruled that the council was right to assume that other regulators, such as the Oil & Gas Authority, would operate effectively:
“This approach was lawful and in accordance with national policy.”
- Costs of the case totalling about £5,000 were awarded against Ms Finch.
Reporting of this case was made possible by individual donations by DrillOrDrop readers