A climate campaigner is to take her long-running fight against the development of oil wells in Surrey to the Court of Appeal.
Sarah Finch has been challenging Surrey County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for drilling and oil production at Horse Hill, six miles from her home in Redhill.
She will ask the Court of Appeal to decide whether the council should have taken account of the greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil produced at the site, in the context of the climate emergency.
This is the latest stage in a campaign against oil operations at Horse Hill that goes back to 2013.
In September 2019, the council approved plans by Horse Hill Developments Limited to drill a further four oil wells and produce at the site for 20 years.
Ms Finch’s legal case centres on what should have been included in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) – a detailed study that accompanied that application.
The council said the EIA should consider only the direct emissions from the process of oil production. But Ms Finch said it should also assess the indirect emissions from using the oil.
A judge at the High Court, Mr Justice Holgate, dismissed her challenge in November 2020. He said the council’s action was in line with government policy.
But the Appeal Court judge, Lord Justice Lewison, has said that the appeal should be heard because the argument over the environmental impact assessment had “far reaching ramifications” and “the emission of GHG is a matter of considerable public concern”.
“although the judge’s reasons for his conclusion are cogent, they are open to proper challenge; and in view of the importance of the question, I regard this as a compelling reason for the appeal to be heard”.
Ms Finch said the Horse Hill oil plan had climate parallels with the dispute over a new coal mine in Cumbria. Earlier this month, the communities minister, Robert Jenrick, ordered a public inquiry on that decision. She said both decisions mattered hugely in light of the global climate summit COP 26 to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November 2021.
“I’m glad that the importance of this case has been recognised and we will now be able to put our arguments to the judges in the Appeal Court.
“The outcry earlier this year about the Government’s refusal to intervene in the Cumbrian coal mine decision led to a change of heart. The Horse Hill oil case raises exactly the same issues – we can’t go on extracting fossil fuels in a climate emergency.
“The UK will be a laughing stock at the global climate talks in Glasgow this year if projects like this are allowed to go ahead. If we want to be world leaders in avoiding dangerous climate change, we need to make sure our planning decisions are in line with our climate targets and that processes such as Environmental Impact Assessment are used to properly assess the full carbon impact of fossil fuel projects.”
Friends of the Earth hopes to be given permission to intervene in the appeal. It made a submission in support of Ms Finch’s case at the High Court. The organisation argued that it was vital to assess the carbon impact of the oil produced by the proposed Surrey wells before any decision was taken to permit their development.
Katie de Kauwe, lawyer at Friends of the Earth, said:
“We maintain that Surrey County Council’s failure to consider the climate impact of burning the oil produced at Horse Hill was unlawful, so we’re delighted Sarah Finch has been given permission to continue this vitally important challenge in the courts.
“With the world staring at catastrophic climate change, and the UK committed to net zero, the full impacts of fossil fuel developments like this must be taken into account in the decision-making process.”
The appeal will decide whether there was a failure to comply with the 2014 EIA Directive and the 2017 Town and Country Planning (EIA) Regulations.
Lawyers for Ms Finch will argue that the council’s approval of planning permission would allow production of hydrocarbons, predominantly oil for use as transport fuel, beyond the year 2040. But nowhere was there an assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the use of that oil.
They will say the High Court judge interpreted too narrowly the scope of an EIA as just an assessment of the impact of the work permitted and not the environmental effects of the whole development. They will also say the judge wrongly held that the greenhouse gas emissions from the use of the oil were out of scope of the EIA.
- Robert Jenrick is expected to rule this month on whether an EIA should accompany Rathlin Energy’s plans for a further six wells and oil production at West Newton-A in East Yorkshire.