Surrey campaigner takes on national planning policy in legal climate challenge

Sarah Finch at Horse Hill protest rally. 26 October 2019. Photo: DrillOrDrop

A campaigner’s legal challenge against oil production in Surrey has grown into a case to bring UK planning policy into line with climate change strategy.

If successful, it would require future fossil fuel projects to be in accord with the UK’s target to reach net zero by 2050, she said.

The case, brought by writer Sarah Finch, originally sought a judicial review of Surrey County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for 20 years of oil production at Horse Hill near Horley.

But a hearing in November 2020 at the Court of Appeal will now also consider how national planning rules fit with net zero.

The secretary of state for local government is likely to become involved and environmental organisations are being encouraged to back the case.

Ms Finch, who is supported by the Weald Action Group, said:

“This case is really important. There is so much resting on it.

“The planning regime is out of step with climate and that is what our case is all about.

“If we win, any future fossil fuel application or high carbon footprint development would have to be properly in accord with the government’s net zero target and would have to calculate all its greenhouse gas emissions up front.

“If they don’t calculate the greenhouse gas emissions at the planning stage, when will they? It is really important that the planning regime is brought into line with climate policy.”

Campaigners gathering outside Surrey County Council in advance of decision meeting on oil production at Horse Hill, 11 September 2019. Photo: DrillOrDrop

The case centres on whether Surrey County Council should have considered the carbon emissions that would result from the use of oil and gas produced at Horse Hill, known as indirect or downstream emissions.

Ms Finch argues that the council acted unlawfully because it took into account only the carbon generated by the production site itself, the direct emissions.

“The council did not look at the far greater emissions that would happen when they burnt the oil which is, after all, the main point of getting it out of the ground.”

She will also argue that the council made only a cursory reference to the impact of the proposals on achieving the UK’s net zero target, announced three months earlier.

Her request for a judicial review was turned down twice. But unusually, an appeal court judge ruled in July 2020 that the case was arguable and deserved a full public hearing.

Also unusually, the judge, Lord Justice Lewison, said a subsidiary argument in Ms Finch’s case should be considered in detail as a new ground at the hearing.

Rowan Smith. Photo: Leigh Day

Rowan Smith, an environmental lawyer with Leigh Day, the firm supporting the case, said:

“It very rarely happens that a judge assists a claimant. It is almost always the other way round.”

The judge described the argument as a “point of some importance which should be considered at a full hearing”, Mr Smith said.

“To us that indicated that this a point of real importance.”

The additional ground centres on what councils are required, under planning rules, to consider when deciding a planning application.

Mr Smith said initially the council told the site operator, a subsidiary of UK Oil & Gas plc, that its planning application should calculate the downstream or indirect carbon emissions produced by using the oil from Horse Hill.

But he said the environmental statement produced by the company for the application did not evaluate the downstream emissions. It confined its assessment of carbon impacts to direct emissions from the site.

The downstream emissions were also not taken into account by planning officers or councillors when they made their decision.

The council’s justification for changing its mind was that planning policy says downstream emissions would be regulated by other non-planning regimes, Mr Smith said.

But he said a previous appeal case, dealing with fracking for shale gas, had ruled that this applied to exploration sites. The ruling in that case was that production sites, like Horse Hill, did need to consider the carbon impact, he said.

The failure to assess downstream greenhouse gas emissions also violated environmental impact assessment rules, he said.

“Because we are now targeting the national planning policy the secretary of state has the opportunity to be involved in the case.”

A submission from the minister must be made by 7 October 2020, when Surrey County Council must also make its written case.

There are also talks with environmental groups about whether they want to intervene in the case.

The Weald Action Group has already raised about £25,000 towards the case. It is now trying to raise another £10,000 to cover the costs of the additional legal argument. A 72-year-old grandmother is doing a 100-mile sponsored walk and a sale of artwork is due to launch in October.

The appeal court hearing is expected to be conducted remotely on 17 and 18 November 2020.

21 replies »

    • Doomed to failure.

      Any basic understanding of the roles & responsibilities of local and national government will show who is responsible for what Sarah is trying to pin on Surrey council & there decision making process.

      Unfortunately that responsibility lies elsewhere.

      Never mind Sarah will have 25 years or more to watch the successful oil production from Horse Hill which is in line with government policy.

      I look forward to Surrey’s council’s successful outcome in supporting it’s residents, taxpayers & the UK economy.

  1. “When they burnt the oil”!!??

    Not ALL oil is burnt. Much is processed to produce items such as synthetic rubber, used widely within medical devices.

    And, as has already been determined at the Wressle enquiry:

    “There is no suggestion that this proposal would increase the use of hydrocarbons, and the evidence demonstrates that the effect would be simply to transfer production to a more local source.”

    There was I thinking climate change was a global issue, and that needed to be considered. Not convinced that a little England argument will hold water against all those scientists who have produced all that evidence, and exporting your carbon footprint (bigger, as a result) is a sensible approach-especially as Greta is dead against it.

    • That story doesn’t work Martin mate ,

      Plastic can either be ‘synthetic’ or ‘biobased’. Synthetic plastics are derived from crude oil, natural gas or coal. Whilst biobased plastics come from renewable products such as carbohydrates, starch, vegetable fats and oils, bacteria and other biological substances.

      The vast majority of plastic in use today is synthetic because of the ease of manufacturing methods involved in the processing of crude oil. However, the growing demand for limited oil-reserves is driving a need for newer plastics from renewable resources such as waste biomass or animal-waste products from the industry.

      In Europe, only a small proportion (about 4 – 6%) of our oil and gas reserves goes towards the production of plastics, with the rest used for transport, electricity, heating and other applications

    • If you have evidence of what is made from Horse Hill oil do pass it on to UKOG’s lawyers Martin, they’d be glad of it. If any at all is used for domestic medical product manufacture it would be a trivial proportion compared to what will be burnt.

      The more oil is produced the more oil is burnt, as surplus supply leads to falling prices- basic economics. Unless you can show that UKOG have arranged for an equivalent oil well abroad to close?

      • Well, Jono and Dorkinian:

        Oil from HH goes to Fawley refinery. Next to Fawley refinery is a chemicals complex who RECENTLY announced they were increasing the output of synthetic rubber due to an increase in demand related to Covid-19. Local REALITY-do keep up.

        And, nope, your maths. are from Ms. Abbott. Domestic produced oil simply replaces imported oil within a country that is a net importer-which UK is and will increase in that respect. So, if oil was not produced at HH, UK would simply import from somewhere else. AS DONE CURRENTLY. Maybe UKOG produced oil from Turkey?? And the carbon footprint of that imported into UK would be better than produced at HH? Oh no it wouldn’t, it would be worse. Greta has REPEATEDLY made that point, and the only one of her utterings that stands scrutiny IMO. UN has made the point about local production/consumption merits. Interesting how such sources are praised and also ignored!

        So, the alternative is a WORSE carbon footprint, hence my agreement with Paul this equates to Nimbyism, whether intended as such, or not.

        Your attempt to conflate that oil produced overseas would go somewhere else is a nonsense. That is to do with the huge increase in use in other countries driven by population growth. Nothing in your argument addresses that and is nothing to do with HH. A totally different equation and if Ms. Finch wishes to trot across to China and tell them to return to a one child policy, good luck to her. If she wishes to trot around to other areas of the world and suggest they return to much higher levels of infant mortality, good luck to her. If she wishes to trot around to other parts of the globe and let them know that they need to accept the previous desperately high mortalities from natural disasters that have been reduced so much by the utilisation of fossil fuel, good luck to her.
        UK production of on shore oil will simply mean less is needed to be imported into UK and overseas oil can go somewhere else where they have no oil but use the stuff. More wells will still be drilled overseas because of that, nothing to do with HH. Maybe Turkey, depending on over 90% for imports, will produce a lot more itself removing the need to have conflict in Libya? Libya oil would still find a market somewhere else. Maybe UK? And then UK sons and daughters would be expected to risk their lives to protect that source and the seas to secure it-as US has made it clear it has no need to do so, so won’t?!

        UK oil being used for UK requirement of PPE? Yep, like that. Much better than importing PPE from Turkey that is then found to be sub standard IMO! Obviously not so to the antis who either ignore the obvious collateral damage of their “policies” or are ignorant of them. And before someone objects to that, take a look at the sort of mealy mouthed responses that have been posted on DoD around the subject of kids in DRC scraping in the ground to mine cobalt and the subsequent health issues.

        Seeing the legislation going through Westminster last week, I’m sure such revenue streams that HH offer are useful to certain parts of the legal profession. Does tend to reduce the antis claims that UK domestic oil production does little for the UK economy though!

  2. An extreme NIMBY. Understands fully that it won’t make a bit of difference on a global basis (or even national basis) but hopes it will stop a back yard development which she disagrees with.

  3. Well I live many miles from the disputed site, but I and some others still prefer to support Ms Finch’s action, so I don’t see how it matters whether she is a NIMBY or not. Slanging doesn’t diminish the truth only the slanger.

  4. denbycotswold – the truth is that it won’t make a bit of difference on a global basis (or even national basis) either way. I trust you are donating to the Weald Action Group? The lawyers will do well whatever the result. My reference to NIMBY includes the Cotswolds, back yard is all of the UK hypocrites and our enemies of industry.

    “If successful, it would require future fossil fuel projects to be in accord with the UK’s target to reach net zero by 2050, she said.”

    Surely she meant to say “fossil fuel projects in the UK”. No control over the rest of the world which will quite happily supply what we need.

    • Dear me we do like making assumptions don’t we? I don’t live anywhere near the Cotswolds fyi. Assumption making’s a risky game.

    • Let’s face it, Paul. You wish now to redefine ‘nimby’ as anyone who disagrees with you or your world view, those who ipso facto are hypocrites. Can we get away from personal insults and concentrate on the matter in hand – Sarah’s attempt to draw attention to and perhaps to address government’s attempts to pull the wool over our eyes by proclaiming commitment to tackling climate breakdown whilst furthering global warming through the continuing exploitation of fossil fuels? Of course one woman’s brave action may not make a bit of difference, but without that one woman’s action what hope is there for any of us. There exist examples of the actions of individuals changing the world to a better place without seeking to “control…the rest of the world”. Cigarette manufacturers do still exist, arms are still manufactured, non-white races are still institutionally victimised, climate change deniers still flourish, and yet…..there are people working in hope for a better world. Let’s have less cynicism unless it’s earned.

      • Ahh, so reality is now cynicism!
        Nope, reality is still reality. Some may want to produce their own reality, but then they add such bits like “furthering global warming” which is not the situation with respect to HH, was argued during the Wressle enquiry AND dismissed as being a false argument. So, with that background, who is being cynical by subsequently pretending the issue has not already been addressed and dismissed as fake?

  5. Martin, in Europe between 4-6% of oil and gas is used for plastic and 87% to generate energy (mostly in the road transport, shipping and aviation sectors).

    • Not sure if you meant to make the point that you did, Sarah!!

      Please refer to the letter from Sir Jim to the EU concerning the demise of the European chemicals industry and the reason for it. Not a good sales point for the antis, simply a demonstration of a faulty EU energy policy that has created such high costs that chemical industries have thrived elsewhere but declined in EU.

  6. Do you explain your interest, Jono??

    Why do you, and others, think those who disagree with you have to explain their motives but you do not? Perhaps the motives that are explained by antis are not worth much scrutiny anyway-like those of Mr. Knox.

    I happen to find the motives of those using oil being concerned where it comes from, a little more convincing than the “motives” of those still using oil, but whinging about it and claiming they are superior simply because they whinge.

    • This has nothing to do with superiority Martin although I don’t have the answer to everything like you do . I believe that we will destroy so much of what is left of this planet before too much longer , home , for many species and eventually for most human life if we keep burning fossil fuels for greed , they are or should be a thing of the past , we are more intelligent than that and should concentrate on greener technologies . The Fossil fool industry just wants more power and wealth regardless of consequences. You Martin and people like you will be to blame , not me , Please don’t reply with one of your industry standard BS answers about us driving gas guzzling 4x4s unless you have a picture of me in a car.

  7. No, but I know you utilise fossil fuel to communicate that hypocrisy, Jono. So, you will be to “blame” as much as I am. Those “blameless” antis who truck around in their 3 litre diesel BMWs and their diesel Mercs., even more so.

    I am more honest. I use fossil fuel, like you do, and have an interest that my usage is as helpful to the environment as possible. Your interest indeed seems to be some sort of superiority, that your usage is allowed because you declare you want to concentrate on greener technologies. Well, the use of fossil fuel is NOT incompatible with concentrating on greener technologies-just look at Sir David’s airmiles. Green technologies are a mixed bag, they are not all utopia as the antis would suggest. For those who wish to prance around trying to stop fossil fuel whilst that is the case, may make them happy, but will do nothing to convince the wider public. I know quite a number of people who were tempted by stories from the green fool industry that their investments into “technology” would be the best plan. Well, it was not, and they will NEVER again be fooled. Not a good way to get people “on-side”. One disappointed customer tells at least ten others who then ask about their experience. If green technologies were the solution CURRENTLY, why do they need to be imposed? That is the road to rejection in a democracy with freedom of information.

    If Mr. Musk eventually achieves his dream (his words) of an affordable electric car-except he has not been good at keeping to time historically-then I may try one. I have tried hybrids and found them to be disappointing, so rejected. My choice of vehicle is to do with whether it will do what I want at an affordable price, not an excuse to pontificate at a dinner party-like a vegetarian wearing her expensive new leather boots! (Yep, observed that also.)

    Not sure your anti capitalist viewpoint is too helpful to your argument. Have you considered Mr. Musk regarding power and wealth, whilst you whinge on about SS bonus? Are many green technologies not about making wealth? I certainly know many landowners who had wind turbines installed on their land-a green revolution was claimed. Well, many hated the things and the green revolution was actually £150k each net profit per year, whether the electricity generated was required, or not. Revolution was more like little revolution, but money still guaranteed. Little power, but much wealth, Jono. “We are more intelligent than that.” Really? So, whinging about plastic in the sea is the only answer and keeping it from the sea is not an answer? Thought the human race had already examined that regarding sewage. (Although ocean racing yachts seem to have slipped the net.)

    I am currently enjoying heat from an air sourced heat pump, whilst I type upon this plastic. So, in my case at least, “green” technology is part of my mix. But, I have no issue with using plastic, apart from accessing products within, and my plastic waste is being collected tomorrow to generate electricity, which may power my air sourced heat pump in a few days! Other plastic, like that dumped out of cars, could be collected by those doing Community Service and also used to generate electricity. Now, that would be “green” justice.

  8. This sounds like an interesting and very valid challenge. If successful, I wonder if it could have an wider impact on the NPPF in relation to other development. We are currently approving huge numbers of new houses by the big developers that are nowhere near carbon neutral, could have their insulation standards improved and they include gas boilers, but no renewable energy sources. Before they are even built, they will need retrofitting in the near future at significant cost and disruption. It’s ridiculous, but predictable.

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