An environmental campaigner has failed in her legal challenge about the climate effects of long-term oil extraction near Gatwick Airport.
Sarah Finch, from Redhill, had argued that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in granting planning permission for 20 years of oil production at the Horse Hill site.
She said the council should have taken into account the full consequences of the decision on the climate.
But a High Court judge, Mr Justice Holgate, today dismissed her case for a judicial review of the decision.
In a written ruling released this evening, he said the council was not required to consider the climate effects of burning oil produced at Horse Hill.
He said the decision was in line with government policy and the council could not be criticised for the way it granted planning permission in September 2019. He also said “it would be impossible” for the court to say that the council’s planning committee did not have an “adequate picture of relevant policies” or that policy had been misinterpreted”.
Ms Finch responded this evening:
“This ruling shows just how out-of-touch our planning system is with the climate emergency.
“Given the Judge’s ruling that planning permission was lawfully granted because it was in line with national government policy, then clearly, that policy needs to be updated.
“It hasn’t been updated since before the Net zero Target was enacted and doesn’t reflect the fact that Parliament has declared a national climate emergency. How can we have a zero emissions target if we don’t count the carbon emissions?”
UKOG described the decision as “victory for law and common sense”.
Direct and indirect impacts
The application for oil production, by a subsidiary of UK Oil & Gas, included an environmental impact assessment [EIA] which considered the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the operation of the site, known as direct emissions. But Surrey County Council did not require the EIA to assess the indirect emissions, resulting from the burning of oil produced at Horse Hill. They were later estimated at up to 10.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
Marc Willers QC, for Ms Finch, said at the hearing that the council might have refused planning permission if it had considered these indirect emissions.
But Mr Justice Holgate said in his ruling that the planning system was concerned with the use of land for development and not the impacts of that use.
He said the council had accepted that the essential character of the proposed development at Horse Hill was for the extraction and production of hydrocarbons and not the later processing, distribution, sale and consumption of end products.
He said the planning system was:
“not directed at the environmental effects which result from the consumption, or use, of an end product, be it a manufactured article or a commodity such as oil, gas or electricity used as an energy source for conducting other human activities.”
He said environmental impact assessments must address both direct and indirect effects of the development for which planning permission was sought, even if they were outside the control of a developer.
But he said:
“there is no requirement to assess matters which are not environmental effects of the development or project. In my judgment the scope of that obligation does not include the environmental effects of consumers using (in locations which are unknown and unrelated to the development site) an end product which will be made in a separate facility from materials to be supplied from the development being assessed.”
Judge Holgate concluded:
“no legal criticism can be made of SCC’s [Surrey County Council’s] focus on the land use and development proposed because that was the “project” which was the subject of the planning application and the related EIA.
“Viewed in that way it is impossible to say that SCC’s judgment that GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from the combustion of refined fuels were not an environmental effect of the proposed development was, as a matter of law, irrational. SCC’s judgment was not beyond the range of conclusions which rational decision-makers could lawfully reach.”
Judge Holgate also said he did not accept the argument by Ms Finch’s team that there were no other measures in place in the UK for assessing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of oil products in motor vehicles. He said these included the target to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
But he did state that the existence of another regulatory regime was not a reason not to assess the environmental impact of a development.
After the ruling, Ms Finch said:
“There seems to be a fundamental inconsistency in the judgment.
“The judge accepts the Council’s assessment of the positive (as the Council saw it) indirect benefits of the oil – such as contributing to UK energy security – but says that the negative impacts did not need to be assessed. How is that logical?”
Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day, which represented Ms Finch, said:
“At the time of a climate emergency, our client is very surprised that the Court has concluded that, under the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, the greenhouse gas emissions from the use of oil extracted are not effects of oil development, and so assessment of their climate impact is not required.
“This exposes a major flaw in the planning system in this country, and proves that it is not fit for purpose in a Net Zero world. Our client is of course bitterly disappointed with this judgment, especially after such a long-standing campaign against oil development in Surrey, and is accordingly taking legal advice on grounds of appeal.”
Friends of the Earth supported Ms Finch’s case. The organisation’s in-house lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said:
“It beggars belief that with both Parliament and Surrey County Council having declared a climate emergency, and as we approach the year the UK will host vital UN climate negotiations, we see an oil company allowed to drill for millions of tonnes of climate-wrecking oil in the English countryside. This must stop.
“The court’s decision is disappointing, but we are proud to have been able to support Sarah Finch and many others in opposing oil drilling in Surrey in this case.”
The costs of Ms Finch’s legal challenge were raised by a crowdfunder appeal.
This report will be updated with any response from Surrey County Council.
At 7am on 22 December, UK Oil & Gas issued a statement to investors. The company’s chief executive, Stephen Sanderson, said:
Stephen Sanderson, Chief Executive of UKOG, said:
“This is a victory for law and common sense. One can, however, only wonder why a comprehensively unsound claim with a clear political agenda was permitted so many bites at this legal cherry. Justice Holgate made it abundantly clear in his judgement that the courts are not responsible for making political, social, or economic choices.
“To our opponents, many of whom fail to see the irony of burning oil to drive to our site to protest, I bring to their attention last week’s Energy White Paper, in which indigenous oil and gas is a part of the UK’s energy transition to net zero.
“Furthermore, oil use as a non-combusted industrial feedstock will remain necessary to manufacture key 21st century materials during and post transition, as without such materials there will be no electric vehicles, green aviation or wind turbine blades. It must surely be preferable that such transitional fuel and vital feedstocks should come from domestic sources rather than those beyond our control and regulation.
“Production will thus continue at Horse Hill to ensure that each highly regulated barrel we produce is one less higher carbon footprint and less regulated barrel imported. Our indigenous barrel’s economic benefit will also remain in the UK rather than add to the UK’s balance of payments deficit.”