Oil court case challenges future big carbon developments

A legal challenge at the High Court this morning could have wide-ranging implications for future proposals that have a large carbon footprint.

Rig occupation at Horse Hill Oil site, 20 October 2020. Photo: XR Surrey

The case, brought by environmental campaigner Sarah Finch, will argue that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in allowing 20 years of oil production at Horse Hill, near Gatwick airport.

Her lawyers will say the council should have considered the full climate impacts of the scheme.

In seeking a judicial review, they will argue that the environmental impact assessment that accompanied the planning application failed to:

  • Assess greenhouse gas emissions resulting from burning oil produced at Horse Hill, or
  • Consider the UK’s legally-binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050

The council decided that the applicant, Horse Hill Developments Ltd, did not have to assess the climate impacts of burning the oil, known as indirect or downstream emissions.

Ms Finch’s team will say that this was an error of law in the way the council interpreted two pieces of national policy: the National Planning Policy Framework and the Minerals Planning Practice Guidance.

If successful, the challenge could have wide-ranging implications for planning applications for other carbon-intense projects in the onshore oil and gas industry and beyond. It could also affect projects which have environmental impacts that occur off-site or over a period of time.

Ms Finch’s case is supported by the Weald Action Group, a network of local groups campaigning against the extraction of oil and gas in southern England.

Friends of the Earth has intervened in the case on Ms Finch’s side. It will argue that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully by not considering the climate impacts of downstream emissions.

On the opposite site, Surrey County Council will maintain that the planning permission granted for long-term oil production at Horse Hill was in line with local and national policies.

Also defending the council’s decision is the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and UK Oil & Gas plc, the parent company of Horse Hill Developments.

Ms Finch, who lives in Redhill, has been campaigning against oil drilling at Horse Hill since 2013. She and others opposed the expansion of the site with four more production wells, approved in September 2019. Permission at the same time for 20 years of production is estimated to result in more than 3 million tonnes of oil.

Ms Finch said today:

“I believe the council’s decision to grant permission for more oil production at Horse Hill without considering the full climate impacts was wholly wrong.

“The Prime Minister is right: there’s no time to waste on tackling the climate emergency. It is shocking that while the futures of our children and grandchildren are threatened, permission is still being granted for the production of fossil fuels, the very things fuelling the climate crisis.”

Rowan Smith, solicitor at Ms Finch’s lawyers, Leigh Day, said:

“Our client believes that, when Surrey County Council gave its permission for the proposed development, it did not take account of the full environmental impact it would have. That meant no regulation whatsoever of the resulting carbon emissions.

“Since the Court of Appeal ruled earlier this year that policy approval for Heathrow airport expansion was unlawful, it has been very clear that the UK planning system must ensure at every level that all climate change impacts are properly considered. This must include consideration of the Net Zero Target.”

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

“It’s astonishing that Surrey County Council should declare a climate emergency in July 2019, and then give the go-ahead to 20 years of oil drilling a few months later. Government at all levels needs to wake up to the climate crisis, with actions and not just words.

“We’re delighted to be supporting this important legal challenge brought by local campaigner Sarah Finch. We believe that authorising this development was unlawful because it failed to consider the climate impacts from the use of the oil produced.

“We maintain that this is a breach of the precautionary principle as these emissions are likely to have a significant effect on the environment – and if they’re not taken into account at this stage, they won’t be at all.

“This decision leaves a yawning gap in the environmental protection regime, which is extremely dangerous in the context of the climate crisis.”

DrillOrDrop invited Surrey County Council to comment on the case. It said previously:

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

In a statement to shareholders last week, Horse Hill Development’s parent company, UK Oil & Gas plc, said:

“The Company and its highly experienced planning law barristers, David Elvin QC and Matthew Fraser, remain confident that SCC’s [Surrey County Council’s] planning decision remains entirely lawful and that the claimant’s case is unsound. The Weald Action Group’s two prior attempts to obtain a JR on similar grounds were refused by two separate judges.”

UKOG’s chief executive, Stephen Sanderson, said:

 “We remain confident that the action has no merit and that the court will uphold SCC’s decision.”

Who’s who in the court hearing

DrillOrDrop will be reporting from the High Court. The case is scheduled for 17 and 18 November 2020 in an online hearing.

The key figures in the case are:

Judge: Mr Justice Holgate

Sarah Finch’s lawyers: Marc Willers QC and Estelle Dehon

Surrey County Council lawyers:  Harriet Townsend and Dr Alex Williams

Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s lawyer: Richard Moules

Friends of the Earth’s lawyer: Nina Pindham

UK Oil & Gas plc’s lawyers: David Elvin QC and Matthew Fraser

3 replies »

  1. Seems their entire case is based on the presumption that the oil will be burned. oil has many uses besides being used for fuel. what evidence have they that this is the case.

  2. A very important point Gasman which the other uses are well documented.

    What evidence have they got of how much can or will be produced to base any figures on?

    Any figures forecast would be unsound estimates not facts & could vary wildly as things progress.

  3. The other point missed is that a very large quantity of refined diesel is currently IMPORTED into UK. Fawley Refinery has plans to increase diesel output, to replace some of those imports. Oil from HH ends up at Fawley. So, no increase in USE of diesel, just local production, and no transport emissions of diesel into UK-so a NET reduction in emissions from diesel used in UK.

    The antis argue that the replaced diesel/oil will still be there. Well, it might be if other countries INCREASE their usage. It is then their responsibility to consider their downstream responsibilities.

    The case is directed in the wrong direction, and has already been covered within the ruling of the Wressle Enquiry. There would only be merit IF UK was not an importer of oil/diesel, and as much as UKOG would like it, HH is not going to change that equation!

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