Minister and Friends of the Earth join legal challenge over Horse Hill oil production

A government minister and an environmental organisation are to participate in a legal challenge over the climate effects of oil production at a site in Surrey.

Drilling rig at Horse Hill, Surrey, September 2019. Photo: UK Oil & Gas plc

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and Friends of the Earth have been granted permission to participate in the judicial review about the Horse Hill site near Horley.

The case, brought by campaigner Sarah Finch, centres on Surrey County Council’s decision in September 2019 to grant planning consent for four new oil wells and 20 years of production at the site.

Ms Finch will argue at the court of appeal that burning oil produced at Horse Hill could emit more than 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over a 20-year-period. Her case is that the county council should have taken this into account.

At the time of the decision, a report by planning officers concluded that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the site’s operation (direct emissions) would not “give rise to significant impacts on the climate”. The report did not consider emissions resulting from burning Horse Hill oil (indirect emissions).

Friends of the Earth had applied to make a legal intervention to support the challenge. The secretary of state applied to be joined in order to oppose the challenge.

Ms Finch (above left), who is supported by the Weald Action Group, said the county council also failed to consider the government’s legally-binding net zero target for carbon emissions. She welcomed Friends of the Earth’s intervention:

“The fact that a leading environmental NGO is intervening in this judicial review indicates the importance of this case. It addresses national policy as well as local decision-making and Friends of the Earth have valuable expertise in the issues it raises. I am pleased that they have got involved as they have a strong record of making positive legal interventions.

“The case is all about Surrey County Council’s failure to consider the full climate impacts of the Horse Hill oil development. I believe we have strong arguments and look forward to putting those arguments to the judge.”

Katie de Kauwe, Friends of the Earth’s in-house lawyer (above centre), said:

“We are intervening in these proceedings because there is a vitally important issue at stake: that the full climate impacts of fossil fuel projects must be environmentally assessed.

“If this doesn’t happen, then how are we going to tackle the climate crisis? We believe that both common sense and the law say that carbon emissions from the actual use of the oil from the Horse Hill wells cannot be left out of the equation when deciding whether to grant planning permission. Yet that is what happened here.

“Friends of the Earth believes this decision by Surrey County Council is unlawful. We are arguing that it breaches UK environmental law, and does not show proper regard to the Government’s Net Zero Carbon emissions target, or the Council’s own declaration of a climate emergency. We are pleased to stand alongside Sarah Finch and the Weald Action Group in opposing this environmentally-damaging development.”

Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day who represents Ms Finch (above right), said:

“Our client believes that Surrey County Council did not take account of the full environmental impact of this proposed development when it made its decision to give the go-ahead.

“Since the Court of Appeal ruled that policy approval for Heathrow airport expansion was unlawful, it has been very clear that there is a legal imperative for the UK planning system to ensure that climate change impacts are properly considered at all levels. In this case, which greenlights fossil fuel extraction, it is evident that this must include consideration of the Net Zero Target.”

A spokesman for the county council previously said:

“The Planning & Regulatory Committee approved the Horse Hill application as it was in accordance with the development plan and policies laid down by Government.”

The costs of Ms Finch’s case have been raised by crowdfunding and initiatives including an online art sale and 100-mile sponsored walk around oil sites in the weald.

The appeal court hearing will take place online on 17 & 18 November 2020.

9 replies »

  1. I’ll guess that the SoS MHCLG will argue that the UK extracting oil in the UK is fine because UK is a net importer of oil (an argument Kwasi Kwarteng gave in response to my letter criticizing UK’s financial support to oil co.s extracting oil from new fields on the UKCS (in UK waters)).
    I’ll guess he will then claim that this displaces imported oil from the UK and thus no additional emissions will result [to those contributing to UK’s carbon budgets].
    And you can guess the flaws in this argument…

    [Word removed at poster’s request]

  2. Well, that’s it all sorted then.

    FOE gets involved, case lost is the past pattern.

    Tankers of oil from Nigeria fresh upon the memory should add to that probability. Let alone the comments from the Inspector regarding Wressle, which have already addressed Henry’s issue and produced a precedent. (Yes, you can disagree with a precedent but it is necessary to come up with new factors that were not being argued when that precedent was decided, after consideration. All factors were argued then.)

  3. Am I reading this correctly? Robert Jenrick MP is supporting Friends of the Earth against Surrey County Council?

  4. Hi Alisonall. No, the Secretary of State is supporting Surrey County Council. On the other side, Friends of the Earth is supporting Sarah Finch in her case for a judicial review of the council’s decision.
    Best wishes, Ruth

  5. So, in other words, the Government will be represented to state what the Government policy is, Alison. Should save a lot of time.

    Must be helpful. Wouldn’t want others suggesting that their own view of Government policy is more valid than the Government itself.

    Perhaps the Government might just remind that fossil fuel extraction in Nigeria, then shipped to Fawley, will produce more global climate change impacts than oil produced at HH and trucked to Fawley. Let alone all the other disadvantages of oil production in Nigeria and what happens to revenues, compared to the UK.

    Mind you, based upon previous disregard for lost lives in Africa sacrificed in support of UK Nimbys, there does not appear to be a lot of compassion for the Government to tap into.

  6. Interesting I have one question. What evidence have they got that the oil will be burnt ? oil is used for many things besides burning it

  7. They haven’t, gasman-having had this debate before with them. They conveniently ignore the chemicals plant that sits next door to Fawley Oil Refinery, for starters, which manufactures all sorts of interesting stuff, including increased output of synthetic rubber to meet the Covid-19 medical demands. And both plants employ a significant number from/including-the IOW, who interestingly, “seem” to want to maintain Nigerian oil supplies and decrease the opportunities for high salary local jobs, which are not that common upon the IOW!

    Their argument seems to be that the EU has off shored chemicals production to other countries and therefore that should not only continue, but be increased. An interesting situation, as huge increases in chemicals production have been achieved in US due to US fracking!! IMO their position is either ignorant, or they have a financial motivation towards US fracking.

    Equally, the burning is a nonsense. Red diesel is “burnt” in tractors and combines to feed us all, and will continue for many years to come. Over 50% of UK diesel is IMPORTED, yet Fawley Refinery wishes to address this with an £800m investment to increase local production and local jobs. Meanwhile the antis will chug about in their imported diesel cars using imported diesel trying to deny local production of both. So, even if there was a significant decline in diesel usage in UK there is plenty of slack to be taken up for UK production, and increased UK production could easily sit alongside decreased usage.

    But then, there are protestors also protesting in the same area about interconnectors, which many of the antis on DoD have been advocating as part of their solution!

    So, Mr. Jenrick has an interesting task ahead.

  8. What guarantee is there that this oil won’t be sold on the international market and exported?
    So long as we continue to EXPORT oil, these arguments about onshore being better don’t add up.

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