Environmental damage from burning oil in cars or planes should be assessed, as well as the benefits of oil production, campaigners told the court of appeal in London today.
A Surrey resident said councils must consider the greenhouse gas emissions from oil combustion when deciding whether to allow onshore extraction sites.
The case, brought by Sarah Finch, centred on the Horse Hill oil site, where an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be emitted during 20 years of oil production.
Surrey County Council told the court yesterday that it had taken into account the greenhouse gas emissions expected from the operation of the site when it granted consent for Horse Hill oil production in 2019.
But the council said an environmental impact assessment did not need to consider the much larger volume of emissions from the combustion of the oil.
It said these emissions were not an indirect effect of the site. Last year, the High Court ruled in the council’s favour.
Ms Finch’s case, backed by the Weald Action Group, argued today there was a contradiction between the way the council had assessed the greenhouse gas emissions from use of the oil and how it considered the economic benefits.
Barrister Estelle Dehon, for Ms Finch, said:
“Those benefits don’t arise from the oil coming out of the ground and stopping there. Those benefits arise and are obliged to be given great weight because of the use of the oil.
“If the benefits of the use of the oil … are all taken into account, so too the impact of the combustion of the oil should be considered as indirect effects in the same way.
“If, as a matter of principle, one is not lawfully able to assess the disbenefits, one wonders whether one is able to assess the benefits as well.”
David Elvin QC, for the site operator, Horse Hill Developments Ltd, and Richard Moules, for the Department of Levelling UP, said Horse Hill oil could not be used without the separate process of refining. Usable oil was not an end product of the Horse Hill site, they said.
Mr Elvin said:
“It is the refinery that produces the end product, whether fuel oil, or for use in pharmaceuticals or manufacturing.
“It is the effect of it being sold to a third party, which turns it into a usable product, that needs to be assessed. They [the third party] will have a better idea of the effect of the end product.”
Mr Elvin said Surrey County Council had been entitled to rule out an assessment of the impact of the use of the oil.
The council was right to say oil production was only one operation and the effect of transforming crude oil into a useable form was a separate process, he said.
Friends of the Earth, which supported Ms Finch, disputed this. It said in a written statement to the court:
“Fossil fuels destined for combustion as fuel are the end product of the [Horse Hill] development. The clue is in the name. Obtaining them for combustion is the very purpose of the development.
“The majority of that combustion will not take place at the site. Yet if those fossil fuels are not extracted, they will not be burnt and will not release greenhouse gas emissions.
“In terms of significant environmental effects, it does not matter where combustion occurs. It does not matter where the oil is refined, it does not matter if the fuel is burned in a factory in Malaysia or an SUV in Chelsea.”
The outcome would be the same, Friends of the Earth said: a worsening of global warming.
Ms Dehon said the planning process was the only point at which there could be an assessment of the climate impact of using all the oil that would be extracted from a site.
She said it was important to consider the impact of oil production because climate change would “continue to cause damage and compromise economic development.” She said:
“This is not a submission that climate change gets special treatment or that it is a special case. But the impact on climate, as with the impact on biodiversity, is important and must be assessed because of the ramifications for people and the planet.”
Judgement in the case will be published at a future date.