Campaigner takes council to court over Horse Hill oil production – day 1 judicial review

Surrey County Council was challenged today at the High Court over its approval of two decades of oil extraction near Gatwick Airport.

Sarah Finch, Horse Hill oil site, 17 November 2020. Photo: Helena Smith

The council granted planning permission for long-term production at the Horse Hill site in September 2019, two months after declaring a climate emergency.

Environmental campaigner Sarah Finch, who lives near Horse Hill, argued that the council should have taken into account the full consequences for the climate.

The court heard that an environmental statement that accompanied the application assessed the greenhouse gases that would be released during the operation of the site, the direct emissions.

But it did not consider the climate impact of burning the oil produced at Horse Hill, known as the indirect emissions. These were later estimated at up to 10.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Marc Willers QC, barrister for Sarah Finch, said the court should quash the planning permission.

He said Surrey County Council had “wholly failed to assess the greenhouse impacts of the development arising from the combustion of the oil.”

“There was a patent defect in the EIA process and that should vitiate the decision.”

Mr Willers said there were no other regulators that would assess the greenhouse impacts of burning the oil or control them

“We’re in times now where environmental assessment has to grapple with the climate emergency. That is not what happened in this case, and it ought to have done.

“We cannot sit by and let greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. We are in a new environment and a dangerous one at that.

“Given the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decision-makers should consider whether it was appropriate to grant planning permission.”

Mr Willers described the environmental statement as unlawful because it was incomplete. He also said there was an error in law because the statement failed to follow the scoping opinion, a set of guidance given by the council to the applicant, a subsidiary of UK Oil & Gas plc.

He said the council originally recommended the statement assess the indirect emissions. But after the statement was submitted, the officer responsible for its review had a “volte face”, Mr Willers said, and changed her mind.  

Mr Willers also criticised the council’s report to the planning committee. This did not address the estimated level of greenhouse gas emissions, direct or indirect, he said. It also failed to engage with the implications of the government’s legally-binding commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.


Surrey County Council defended its decisions to grant planning permission and to remove the need to assess emissions from burning the oil.

The council’s barrister, Harriet Townsend, rejected the argument that these emissions were an indirect effect of the development:

“There is likely, down the line, to be greenhouse gas emissions that the product of the development is associated with. But whether they are effects of the development are a different question. They are effects of the product.”

The court was told that oil from Horse Hill was likely to be used in the transport sector and would probably be exported.

Ms Townsend said neither the developer nor the council had any way of knowing whether the product would be burnt in the UK or abroad, or if any emissions were offset.

[UKOG] “has no control over the question over whether the oil is combusted and if it is when and how.

“The combustion emissions are not caused by the development; they are not effects of the development; and they are not caused by the use and exploitation of the end product of the works.

“in this case, the use and exploitation of the end product of the works is the operation of the well site and the sale of the crude oil.”

“Tremendous implications”

The judge, Mr Justice Holgate, said Ms Finch’s case would have “tremendous implications” for the planning system in England and Wales if it succeeded.

He said the issue of assessing indirect greenhouse gas emissions may not be a suitable one for land use planning decisions.

“It may need to be considered by parliament and not judges”.

He indicated that a decision in this case may need to wait until after the ruling by the Supreme Court on whether the government’s approval of a third runway at Heathrow Airport took account of UK climate change commitments.

The judge also criticised the volume of information, including what he described as inadmissible witness statements, submitted to the court.

“This case has got out of hand in terms of the material put before the court. I think the danger is that it will get in the way of delivery of justice.”

He said participants in the case could not rely on material that had not been considered by the council at the time.

  • The case was adjourned to 10.15am on Wednesday 18 November 2020, again conducted by video conference. The court is expected to hear more from Surrey County Council and from lawyers representing the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and UK Oil & Gas plc.

10 replies »

  1. Big implications for Brussel Sprout growers and Curry restaurants!

    Look beyond that somewhat jocular reference, and the nonsense around this challenge may be evident. How about using the same approach to campaign against a house being built next door?

    Apart from those considerations, the maths. still fail to add up whilst UK is importing oil. By the time that has ceased, so will HH have ceased output. Internationally, oil producers adjust output to demand. If UK import demand becomes less they adjust their output if that is a material consideration for them-see OPEC regular pronouncements. Maybe they find other countries increase their demand? Well, that is an issue for other countries, and a totally separate issue.

    Local production of oil does not increase consumption and thus greenhouse gas emissions, but simply replaces over the horizon production and emissions. Already clarified by the Wressle Enquiry.

    Think local Farm Shop. Or PPE.

    Next case?

  2. Simple economics of supply and demand. Produce more hydrocarbons and the price comes down, which generally means more is purchased and used. With an oversupply of fossil fuels in the world, producers can only hold off and reduce supply for so long as they cannot cut supply completely. The market has been more volatile. The advancement of greener energy sources plus the impact of the pandemic resulted in negative oil prices. Many institutions are offloading fossil fuel investments and the associated exposure to risk. Even majors like BP now recognise stranded assets.

    But the problem with fossil fuels is not just economics. With the extraction of fossil fuels and climate change we have to look at the global picture and as more fossil fuel extraction occurs, it follows that the more will be burnt. For the U.K. to truly offset our emissions from increased oil and gas extraction, it would mean the equivalent being reduced elsewhere in the world, which is unrealistic. And let’s not forget the drive is to reduce consumption and production. If we are to keep the climate from dangerous overheating and destruction we cannot burn all the known reserves of fossil fuels we already have. What we do here in the U.K. impacts across the globe. And vice versa. Climate change does not recognise borders and it is plain wrong for any nation to be extracting new reserves of fossil fuels.

    Our policies in the U.K. should reflect this, they cannot allow oversimplification of the problem we face. They should not look at the vitally important issue of climate change on a piecemeal basis, as sadly the planning system tends to. I wish this challenge well but even if it fails it is a poor reflection on the UK’s policy makers rather than the basis of the claim itself. Because extracting new reserves of fossil fuels can never help reduce global GHGs.–Saudi_Arabia_oil_price_war

  3. Or, more simply, KatT, :

    Whilst UK imports oil it clocks up emissions from that oil. That will continue for the projected life of HH.

    If it doesn’t import some oil, it does not clock up emissions from oil it does not import.

    It may clock up the emissions from that oil it produces locally that replaces the imported oil, but emissions are less for local production. So, our policies in UK should reflect that, because that is something we can achieve. Already clarified during Wressle Enquiry.

    If you wish to find the naughty boys and girls who produce lots of oil and lots of emissions BUT little used for themselves, then go and protest in Saudi (good luck) or Norway. Think you will find we can not achieve much with either.

    UK should concentrate upon what it has the ability to achieve relatively quickly, which is to maximise the proportion of local production within the overall consumption. The overall consumption may drop over time, but in this equation is not significant. (Local production of PPE now over 70%, against 1% a few months ago. No benefits to that environmentally?)

    What we do with on shore UK oil does NOT impact across the globe-unless you have geological knowledge that is unknown to others.

    Your dogma is anti progress with regard to climate change. You remind me of a Spanish courgette producer advocating UK should not grow courgettes! Or, a rose grower from Kenya. Or, even, an oil producer in Nigeria.

    More irony.

  4. I do like the idea that ceasing all UK onshore oil production will cause the price of oil to sky-rocket (or even move in the slightest), it made me smile.

    • Who implied that ceasing U.K. oil production would cause prices to skyrocket? Clearly they wouldn’t and I’m afraid I haven’t managed to find any comments that suggest they would. Apologies if I’ve missed something, please point me to the relevant text. But if you are implying I said that, I’m afraid you have somehow mistaken my meaning.

      And as for Martin’s comments about local use

      “ The court was told that oil from Horse Hill was likely to be used in the transport sector and would probably be exported.”

      The operator has already told the court the oil will probably be exported!

      And I’m not anti progress, far from it. I am looking to the future Martin, not the past. To growth and investment in green energy, green technologies, skilled sustainable jobs that will lead to a sustainable world for future generations. But you can continue wallowing in the status quo, making ill informed comments about Tesla, electric cars, air source heat pumps and all the other advancements you enjoy criticising. Because they simply continue to advance.

      • “Simple economics of supply and demand. Produce more hydrocarbons and the price comes down, which generally means more is purchased and used.”

        Which implies that if you produce less then prices go up and less is used!

        • Yes, David.

          And, of course, with OPEC being the world’s largest cartel, outside of pandemics and other such things, supply is quickly adjusted to meet demand. That is the point of a cartel.

          The economic model KatT tries to use is nonsense, and only works if the cost of living is so decreased that people have more disposable income to spend on things that use more hydrocarbons-like an extra holiday.

          Not sure it is a wise suggestion to advocate that increasing hydrocarbon prices so cost of living is so high people can not afford things is a good recruiting tool!

      • Sorry, KatT, you have mistaken me for someone else!

        This one has an air sourced heat pump! Lovely things. Pumping away as I post. I have made that point at least three times on DoD. I have also asked the question with genuine interest as to where is the data to show 100 of them work efficiently on a 100 house estate when it is a minus temperature outside. Still awaiting some enlightenment on that one. Logic, and the laws of physics, suggest that could be an issue. Doesn’t apply to me, so I have one. If it did, I might not. My son, who is a builder, would also be interested in the answer to my question.

        The operator has NO IDEA where the oil will end up. It may be exported, it may not. If it is exported it may come back as processed diesel! UK continues to import around 50% of diesel used-although Fawley Refinery was going to create lots of well paid jobs to help correct that with a £800m investment.

        As far as your other fake news, we did have a discussion a while ago about electric vehicles, specifically Volvo, and you showed you didn’t have a clue about whether electric models were available or not, and had to be corrected. (I think they will be “shortly”, and like most, will be made in China, or big chunks of them!) Equal fake news with piling of new build houses. If you want to comment about items please make sure you have some knowledge, or do some research rather than try and suggest those that do, don’t. You also know I have tried two hybrid vehicles and found them to be pathetic. Tried, and rejected. The product was poor. Sorry, that is what I do regarding poor products.

        My information about Tesla is that they have struggled to make a profit for a lot longer than UKOG yet Mr. Musk has managed to accrue a fortune much greater than Mr. Sanderson, and Mr. Musk only recently stated he is looking FORWARD to the day he can produce an economically priced electric vehicle. Also, Tesla have had issues with cutting down trees to build a new factory, whereas Ineos follow the local requirements! If, and when, Mr. Musk produces an economically priced electric car I may become interested. Whilst he is not able to do that, I will be concerned about the environmental damage and health issues the attempts to produce uneconomic electric cars are causing. Which you have tried to dismiss several times.

        So, if any of that is “ill-informed”, please let me know. But, be careful not to pile in-excuse the pun-without resorting to false statements.

        Yes, advancements do just that-they advance. When they advance to a position that is a proper alternative, I and many more will embrace. If they don’t then I and many more will reject.

  5. Yes, David, there is a lot to smile about when the antis start to get into economics and UK responsibilities.

    The one that causes me most amusement is the whole elimination of credit and debit (that each householder is familiar with-unless extremely wealthy) that the UK is responsible for the debit, in respect of emissions, of the Industrial Revolution, but no mention about the credit for it!!

    If that argument is followed, lets receive the huge credit (I will be pleased to bank the receipts) and THEN the UK could send the small change of the debit back!

    The other item which has made me smile, is what will replace tax revenue from sales of petrol and diesel?? That one is going to be a surprise to many. Shouldn’t be, but it will be- as it will inevitably move AWAY from the polluter paying!

  6. Here are a copy of my comments posted on day 2 of the trial report as to why the appeal will fail.

    For once I wish to thank Drill or drop for your reporting today. I often find a bias with your reporting which is often far from objective, but today I find in your report the underlying reasons that this challenge will fail & fail it will.

    The reason it will fail is that there is a difference between emissions produced from the production of oil which are regulated by the various authorities & mitigation put in place on site eg. flaring, gas to wire etc. & the product which has it’s own regulation having been produced which is most noticeable in the transportation which Sarah Finches legal council has failed to understand.

    Let me explain; The produced oil is stored on site prior to being transported by oil tanker. The oil tanker & its cargo is regulated in this instance by the 1267 plates for crude oil & if the product in the tank is
    ( Non hazardous, irritant, Corrosive, Toxic or very toxic) & the relevant chemical symbols.

    The oil is transported to an oil refinery & the refining process is what will split the oil into thousands of different parts which will be used with other components in thousands of uses from cleaning chemicals, tar for the roads, plastics, oil for lubrication, oil for car engines, petrol, diesel & thousands of other products. Many do not need to be burnt & the refining process & the individual uses of the product through chemical labeling manufacturer instruction on usage, dilution & disposal which may be harmful going to the sewer if not disposed of correctly. eg. oil disposal from food premises although vegetable oil is licensed for collection & disposal by the local authority through authorised collectors who reprocessed for soap, animal feeds etc. But prevents oil being disposed of incorrectly & damaging the environment through the drains, sewers, Reid beds & rivers. Chemicals sold with manufactures instructions are covered by there own legislation (COSHH) Control of Substances Hazardous to Health & other uses will likewise have there own control measures.

    The key question here is following the refining process if any new legislation is needed or not for what may only be a small handful of products of 1000 products that will be produced that will be burnt & produce the emissions. The reality is that the key products where emissions are produced are monitored by eg. car engine size, the types of fuel used & emissions tests during MOT being within allowable levels. There has been progress in this arena with governments providing incentives for lower emission vehicles & manufacturers making cars more efficient. But there are now more changes on way with electric vehicle production & the phaseout of the combustion engine. New building regulations for houses not to has gas boilers installed & I assume we will see the current gas boilers systems needing to be upgraded to hydrogen gas boilers.

    The change you seek are on the way with the transition but the world will not stop while it happens & new technology & infrastructure is still required in the transition period.

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