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