The UK government is in court today to defend long-term oil production in the Surrey greenbelt – just three days after the end of international climate talks in Glasgow.
A legal challenge, brought by environmental campaigner Sarah Finch, seeks to overturn consent for expansion at the Horse Hill site in Surrey and 20 years of oil extraction .
Her case, at the Court of Appeal in London, centres on whether all the climate impacts of a proposal should be taken into account when planning permission is considered.
The government has backed Surrey County Council, which assessed only greenhouse gas emissions from the process of oil production at Horse Hill when it approved planning permission in September 2019
Ms Finch has argued that this was unlawful and the council should also have accounted for the larger volume of emissions from the use of the oil.
It has been estimated that the use of Horse Hill oil could release more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.
The court will be asked to rule on whether the environmental impact assessment (EIA), used as part of the decision-making process, should have considered all the greenhouse gas emissions from Horse Hill oil.
The judgement is likely to have wide-ranging implications.
The final decision from the COP26 climate conference on Saturday pledged to pursue efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C.
This would require “rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions”, the decision said, with cuts of 45% within nine years, relative to the 2010 level, and reaching net zero emissions around 2050.
In an earlier hearing on Ms Finch’s case, the High Court ruled that the council did act lawfully. This is already being used by fossil fuel developers to justify excluding emissions from the use of their product. West Cumbria Mining Limited sought to do this in the recent planning inquiry into the proposed Whitehaven coal mine.
Sarah Finch, who is representing the campaign network Weald Action Group, said today:
“If councils don’t assess all the climate impacts of a proposed development before giving it permission, then we have no chance of reaching net zero. Surrey County Council didn’t do this in the case of Horse Hill, which I believe was wrong, legally as well as morally.
“The Prime Minister said at COP26 ‘If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow’. He’s right. And getting serious means leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Friends of the Earth has been given permission to intervene in the case in support of Ms Finch. Its lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said:
“Granting planning permission for more oil extraction in the middle of a climate crisis without considering its full impact on our planet is ludicrous, and, as our legal team will argue, also unlawful.
“A number of other countries assess ‘end-use’ emissions as part of their environmental impact assessments, the UK should too.
“It’s astonishing that the UK government is defending this decision in court, only days after the conclusion of COP26. So much for its commitment to building a carbon-free future.
“We’re proud to be backing Sarah’s legal challenge. In the wake of weakness from both the government and Surrey County Council, she is standing up strongly for both her community and our environment.”
Ms Finch is represented by the law firm, Leigh Day. Solicitor Rowan Smith said:
“As governments around the world re-commit to step up action in response to the climate emergency, the Court of Appeal will this week consider a hugely important case for the future of the planet.
“Our client, and the campaigners she represents, make a simple point: Surrey Council cannot lawfully grant planning permission for the production of fossil fuels without first assessing its total climate change impact, including the carbon emitted when the fuels are burnt. Our client hopes that the Court of Appeal will reverse the earlier judgment and conclude that planning permission ought to be quashed on that basis.”
Sarah Finch is represented by Marc Willers QC and Estelle Dehon. Friends of the Earth is represented by Paul Brown QC and Nina Pindham. Surrey County Council is represented by Harriet Townsend and Dr Alex Williams, the developer UK Oil & Gas by David Elvin QC and Matthew Fraser, and the Department for Levelling Up by Richard Moules.
- DrillOrDrop will be reporting on the case, which is expected to last one-and-a-half days.