Government urged to withdraw from legal case in support of Surrey oil production

The UK government is being urged today to withdraw from a legal challenge about the climate impacts of oil production in Surrey.

Horse Hill oil site in Surrey. Photo: Weald Action Group

Campaigners have argued that the government cannot claim to be a world leader on tackling climate change while also backing fossil fuel extraction projects in the courts.

The newly-named Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), is opposing a case brought by Surrey campaigner, Sarah Finch, to be heard at the appeal court next month (November 2021).

The case centres on the granting of planning permission by Surrey County Council for 20 years of gas production and expansion of the Horse Hill oil site.

The DLUHC confirmed this morning that the secretary of state, Michael Gove, has recused himself from involvement in the case because his constituency is near Horse Hill. But a spokesperson said the department remained an interested party.

Sarah Finch

Ms Finch has argued that Surrey County Council should have taken account of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the burning of oil from Horse Hill, known as indirect emissions. This could amount to 10 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, she has said.

The council, supported by the site operator and the government, has argued that it needed to consider only the emissions from the process of production.

Ms Finch said:

“This case could have enormous significance.

“If we win it could mean that all developments that are subject to environmental impact assessments will have to properly assess the indirect greenhouse emissions that will take place.

“This will allow us to measure then against national climate targets, which is an absolute first step if we are serious about meeting net zero and about keeping global heating within liveable limits.”

Campaigners from the Weald Action Group said today it was not good enough for Mr Gove to recuse himself from the case:

“His department needs to withdraw completely from the case.

“In his new role to deliver a planning system that meets the Government’s targets for Net Zero and urgent decarbonisation of the economy, his department’s involvement in the Horse Hill case makes a mockery of any climate change commitments.”

The group urged supporters to use social media to put pressure on Mr Gove to withdraw his department from the case.

“Undermines government claim to be a world leader on climate”

Horse Hill oil site. Photo: Weald Action Group

The appeal hearing begins on 16 November, in the week following the COP26 UN climate summit, hosted by the UK government in Glasgow.

Friends of the Earth, which is supporting Ms Finch at the appeal court, said the involvement of a government department in the case undermined the UK’s ability to ask other countries to move away from fossil fuels.

The organisation said:

“The government cannot claim to be a world leader on climate while spending taxpayers money to back a development that would extract 3 million tonnes of oil up to almost the net zero deadline.

“At the UN climate talks the UK will be asking other nations to transition away from fossil fuels, submit their own net zero commitments, and provide climate financing for poorer countries. World leaders will not listen to a government that does not have its own house in order.”

Horse Hill is one of four developments identified by Friends of the Earth which, it said, threatened the UK’s climate reputation. The organisation said:

“This development is incompatible with the 2050 net zero target and the UK’s efforts to show global climate leadership in the run up to UN climate talks in Glasgow.

“We urge the government to immediately withdraw from the appeal and to stop defending the decision to grant planning permission for the Horse Hill development.”

“Withdrawing from the case and committing to an end to fossil fuel extraction in the UK would demonstrate clear leadership on climate and help persuade other countries to follow our example.”

Case has “far-reaching ramifications”

Last year, the High Court dismissed Ms Finch’s case that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in granting planning permission and refused her request for a judicial review. That decision has already been cited by developers in planning applications.

But earlier this year, an appeal court judge said the arguments should be re-examined. Lord Justice Lewison said the issue of what should be considered in an environmental impact assessment had “far reaching ramifications” and the emission of greenhouse gases was “a matter of considerable public concern”.

The case, listed for a day and a half, is expected to hear about other legal challenges which have argued successfully that end-use emissions from fossil fuel developments could and should be considered.

In May 2021, Friends of the Earth Netherlands won a landmark case against Shell in the Dutch court. Judges ordered the company to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030, compared with 2019 levels. This would bring it in line with the Paris climate agreement.

18 replies »

      • Right nothing 🙂
        If this areas is so against oil production, should not use oil products. Period. Otherwise it is massive hypocrisy.

      • John
        You would be right that the shortage of fuel in SE England has no link to oil production in Surrey. But that there is no (or less) fuel does not seem to have been warmly welcomed by those living down there. Not sure why, it is surely a dream come true? And in that part of the country most blessed with subsidised public transport!

  1. Let’s face it, Sarah Finch isn’t interested in climate change, she is only interested in this because it’s in her ‘back yard’. Does she and has she campaigned in other parts of the country against emissions??

    • What an extraordinary commentI Have you any proof that Sarah is not interested in climate change but only in her ‘back yard’? If not, keep your accusations to I do in talking to you. Your criterion for sincerity is.- has she “campaigned” elsewhere? This despite the fact that my objections lodged against fracking appear to be deemed of little interest unless I hail from the area in question! The impressive number of objections to fracking in North Yorkshire was questioned precisely because it included people from elsewhere. Non- locals at the gates of frack sites were left in no doubt by those supporting pollution that their presence was irrelevant and unwanted!
      Have you done anything to defend this environmental crime save cast doubts upon the integrity of others?

  2. FOE involved=win to UKOG.

    “Undermined the UK’s ability to ask other countries to MOVE AWAY from fossil fuels”.


    Move away is not the same as stop. Moving away is a transition and should actually include reducing the emissions from the fossil fuel used, and will continue to be used. So, HH would be a positive step in that direction, reducing transport emissions. A no brainer, unless wedded to the maritime transport industry! But then-remember the Torrey Canyon?

    Meanwhile, last week saw a continuing increase in drilling in USA to help control their situation from their inability to get OPEC to increase production. Hardly having much of an impact with Brent now around $81/barrel, but I suppose there are not that many concerned about the cost of living in Surrey.

    • An interesting point that you raise Iaith. I recall the fury and vitriol from pro-frackers, O&G junkies etc during the Kirkby Misperton days. Those from close by were all accused of being NIMBYs, but it was nothing to do with people from further away, so none of them were apparently entitled to legitimately comment. There was clearly some sort of ‘doughnut’ region around KM8 at an unspecified distance, where they believed people were entitled to object, but how far away from the site it began or ended was never made clear. My personal experience was that the majority of objectors were intelligent, articulate and very committed people that were (and still are) concerned and well informed about the whole climate change/environmental and ecosystem destruction/pollution issues worldwide.

  3. An interesting point, Mike, but you ignore the frequent comments-from antis- on this forum around those who were not local to PNR and therefore were not legitimate if they supported the testing at PNR!

    I have no problem with respect to Nimbys. There are many issues locals are against. However, as far as energy is concerned, it is a much wider debate as energy is used by all-including you, Mike-and we have no control on the actual source when we top up our tanks, or switch on a light. Therefore, unless there are compelling local reasons for energy not to be generated at a particular UK site, then it is a matter for everyone-and, I see no compelling local reason why oil should not be extracted at HH (if possible) rather than, say Nigeria, and transported to UK. I can see compelling reasons why what we use-yes, we-you and me-comes from local sources if that is possible. Absolutely no different to Cornish lithium. Your personal experience doesn’t seem to be able to explain why some should deny that transport emissions are an issue that could be modified by local production, yet I would suspect that if the term fossil fuel was removed they might articulate just that.

    Local campaigners (HH) state that the production will not be significant against imports, yet were posting about industrializing the countryside a while ago. The former is probably correct, but the argument around that is nonsense. The output from a wind turbine is not that significant, so is that a valid argument against UK wind turbines?

    • Maybe that is why they wish to drill some more, Mike?

      However, perhaps you are making the point that Ms. Finch has no reason to be worried, and her action is just taking up a disproportionate amount of the courts time?

      Mind you, perhaps you could make the same comment about wind turbines when there is no wind?

      And solar panels, when the sun is not shining?

      But, over $50k per week (and rising) times 52 weeks is not something to be sniffed at.

      • 86% of £50k. Cost of sales exceeding revenue will increase as price of disposal goes up. You have to wonder why the EA and OGA have not made decisions on applications submitted ages ago. I never take anything as granted.

  4. Price of disposal? Why?

    I thought part of the plan was to re-inject on site. (Which would save even further transport emissions!) I think you are suffering from the antimaths virus that bedevils the “cause”. Also, $s are not £s. However, you did better than most with an attempt to balance the equation. Many don’t even attempt it.

    No, I do not have to wonder. I am quite used to such bodies being way behind on all sorts of things due to the pandemic, or using it as an excuse. My pleasure is now actually finding any supplier of goods or services that is the exception within that rule, or has reduced their fees when it is obvious they are not.

    I never take anything for granted either, Mike. However, I would find it extraordinary for any UK court to make a ruling that would have such huge national and international ramifications. It would preclude any planning for new fuel stations in UK, or refinery either. (Maybe what some would like, but the consequences of no investment would soon be apparent and would not be liked by the vast majority.) It would also raise the question as how local production would be constrained but imports of the same goods would not. And such a ruling could not just be applied in isolation to fossil fuel. It would be a charter for off shoring the UK carbon footprint-which is rather ironic as that is what Greta has been accusing UK of for a little while. (The one point with which I agree. I happen to believe my carbon footprint should be where I can see it and recognize it is a size 6 rather than a size 12.)

  5. Interestingly Greenpeace have just lost a similar argument to Ms Finch’s, in its latest efforts to block production from the BP and Ithaca energy Vorlich oilfield in the North Sea.

    They claimed that the UK Government and the Oil and Gas Authority, issued permits illegally without taking climate change impacts into account.

    In his ruling, Lord President Lord Calloway said: “It would not be practicable… to conduct a wide ranging examination into the effects, local or global, of the use of that fuel by the final consumer.”

    He also highlighted the continued reliance on fossil fuels by society, particularly given the current energy crisis.

    “Although the appellants’ aspiration is for such extraction to cease, it does not appear to be contended that the UK economy is not still reliant in a number of different ways on the consumption of oil and gas. At present, a shortage of oil and gas supplies is a matter of public concern.”

  6. Yes, I saw that John, so I would urge that this legal case is withdrawn.

    Surely courts have more important matters than dealing with a question that has just been answered? I would suspect HMG is making that point currently.

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