Long-term oil extraction from a site in the Surrey greenbelt would “inevitably” result in greenhouse gas emissions from burning the fuel, the court of appeal was told today.
A legal challenge by environmental campaigner Sarah Finch argued that 20 years of oil production approved at Horse Hill could add an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere.
Her case comes just three days after the end of the COP26 international climate talks in Glasgow, at which small island nations warned that burning fossil fuels threatened their survival.
Surrey County Council, which granted planning permission for Horse Hill oil extraction in 2019, said it needed to consider greenhouse gas emissions arising only from operation of the site.
But Ms Finch, supported by Weald Action Group and Friends of the Earth, argued that the council had acted unlawfully by failing to account for the much larger volume of emissions from burning the oil.
Her barrister, Marc Willers QC, said reports from the UN’s adviser on climate change had concluded that the future of the climate depended on decisions made now.
The growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would lead to global temperature rise, he said, with potentially catastrophic effects of sea level rise, droughts, flooding and wildfires.
A previous hearing of the case at the High Court last year had ruled that greenhouse gas emissions from burning the oil were not an “effect of the development” and were outside the control of the developer. It was not possible to know when, where or how combustion would take place, the High Court had said.
“Oil combustion will contribute to climate emergency”
Today, Mr Willers said it made no difference to climate change where the oil was burned, whether in Chelsea or China:
“Oil combustion will emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere where it will contribute to the climate emergency that we face.”
The case centres on environmental impact assessments (EIA), detailed studies that accompany larger planning applications.
Mr Willers said the regulations required EIAs to look at both direct and the indirect or downstream emissions.
“in a case involving fossil fuel production, the raison d’etre is to produce oil for combustion, with the result that greenhouse gases will be emitted.
“It would be irrational not to take into account the downstream emissions. with this type of development.
“The downstream emissions are capable of being quantified, ought to be quantified and that assessment ought to be put before the decision-maker so that they have the fullest information on the impact of the development.”
Mr Willers said this approach reflected findings in international courts. The greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil were “reasonably foreseeable and inevitable impacts”, he said.
Barrister Estelle Dehon, also for Ms Finch, said EIAs regularly considered indirect impacts, such as increased jobs in the supply chain, damage to local shopping areas or threats to sensitive wildlife areas.
These impacts happened outside the boundary of a development and were also beyond the control of a developer.
“There is nothing in the [High court] judge’s ruling that explains why many other benefits or impacts fall within an obvious indirect effect, while greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil do not.
“Oil combustion is not part of Horse Hill project”
Harriet Townsend, barrister for Surrey County Council, told the court that oil was not the end production of the Horse Hill development. That was the operation of the site, she said.
Asked whether Horse Hill would lead to increase burning of fuel in cars, she said:
“We don’t know either way, but it is not correct to assess this development on the basis that it would lead to an increase in oil consumption.”
Mrs Townsend said:
“It is no part of the purpose of this project that the crude be burned after refinement. This project has no interest in that. The burning of oil is likely but not inevitable. It is not the purpose of this project.
“This project would be complete, even if the extracted oil was bought by a philanthropist and buried in the ground. The project has completed its purpose.”
She said combustion emissions created from raw materials were “the effect of decisions made by others elsewhere”. Crude oil joined the international market after it was extracted, she said, and the Horse Hill oil was indistinguishable from other sources of crude.
Mrs Townsend said:
“My client has declared a climate emergency. My client is committed on playing its part in the achievement of net zero.
“At times of crisis, it’s even more important than ever that clear decision-making is allowed to prevail, and the climate crisis should not cloud the views of this court.”
- The case continues tomorrow when the three appeal court judges will hear more in support of Surrey County Council from the operating company, UK Oil & Gas plc, and the Department for Levelling Up. Friends of the Earth will also address the court on support of Ms Finch’s case.