Surrey County Council told the High Court today it had acted lawfully in granting consent for two decades of production at the Horse Hill oil site near Gatwick Airport.
The council was defending its planning permission against a legal challenge by local campaigner, Sarah Finch.
She argued that the council should have considered the full climate impacts before making its decision. DrillOrDrop report of day 1
The case centred on whether the council should have taken into account the effects of burning Horse Hill oil – the downstream or indirect greenhouse gas emissions.
Early in the planning application process, the council recommended that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) should consider the global warming potential of long-term oil production. But officials later accepted the developer’s argument that an assessment on downstream or indirect emissions was not needed.
Ms Finch and Friends of the Earth said the council had acted unlawfully and the planning permission should be quashed.
Lawyers for the council, a government department and the site operator urged the court to dismiss Ms Finch’s claim.
A key argument was whether the indirect greenhouse gas emissions were an effect of the development or an effect of the product of the development.
Richard Moules, for the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, said:
“the council was reasonably entitled to conclude as a matter of planning judgment that GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from the future combustion of produced hydrocarbons were not effects of the Development and therefore they did not need to be included in the EIA for the purposes of the planning decision-making process.”
Harriet Townsend, for Surrey County Council, said it was unknown whether emissions from burning the oil would add to global greenhouse gases or whether they would be offset by lower production elsewhere.
“All we know about the product of this development is that it will be put somewhere out into the market place and that the way it is used or disposed will have an effect on the environment. It is not an effect of the production of that product.
“This case did not require an assessment of the indirect greenhouse gases and the total cannot be known because it depends on the market.”
She said the site operator, Horse Hill Developments Limited, had no control over the downstream emissions and could not do anything to reduce their effects.
She also rejected the argument that the council’s decision would have been different if the emissions from burning Horse Hill oil had been taken into account. She said:
“Had SCC [Surrey County council] required an assessment of combustion emissions within the ES [environmental statement], it is highly likely that any impact on the climate caused by those emissions would not have been judged to be significant.”
She said the planning committee the granted planning permission for Horse Hill was “well aware” that oil production would result “in due course” in greenhouse gas emissions. She said:
“the uncertainties inherent in any such assessment are so pervasive that it would have been highly likely that SCC would have given it limited weight in the decision-making process”
David Elvin QC, for Horse Hill Developments Limited, said the councillors who granted planning permission had concerns about greenhouse gas emissions but he added:
“It is clear that members felt the arguments of need [for oil] outweighed these concerns.”
He said emissions from Horse Hill oil would be “indistinguishable from the contributions of alternative sources of oil” and, he argued, their environmental impacts “could not be quantified”.
Mr Elvin added that the council could rely on other regulators to control emissions.
“These non-planning regimes regulate hydrocarbon development and other downstream industrial processes and decision-makers can assume that these regimes will operate effectively to avoid or mitigate the scope for material environmental harm.”
Summing up for Ms Finch, Marc Willers QC said the combustion of oil was an indirect effect of the development. The council’s decision might have been different if the indirect emissions had been taken into account:
“[the council] may well have decided to refuse the application for planning permission, or at least reduced the period over which Horse Hill Developments Limited would be permitted to produce oil.”
He said there was no regulation of downstream emissions of oil used in transportation, so the council could not rely on non-planning regulators.
Mr Willers added that global warming must be addressed urgently, both nationally and locally:
“Dangerous climate change should be addressed by government policy but it should also be addressed by a mineral planning authority, [in this case] weighing in the balance the indirect greenhouse gas emissions from burning the oil.”
The judge, Mr Justice Holgate, reserved judgement and did not give a time limit for his ruling. He described the case as “very interesting” and “very important”.
BBC journalists from a regional news programme have been ordered to attend the High Court tomorrow after a small extract of the online hearing was recorded and broadcast on 17 November 2020, in breach of the law.
Mr Justice Holgate said he wanted the journalists to explain the circumstances behind the broadcasting.
The additional hearing is at 10.30am at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London.