Interview: campaigner “vindicated” by Supreme Court hearing on climate impact of oil production

A climate campaigner says her three-year legal challenge over oil extraction in Surrey has been vindicated with a hearing at the UK’s highest court.

Sarah Finch at the Horse Hill oil site, 17 November 2020. Photo: Helena Smith

Sarah Finch announced today that the Supreme Court has agreed to make a landmark ruling in her case on the climate impacts of onshore oil production.

In an interview with DrillOrDrop, she said:

“I feel vindicated because I always thought this was a nationally-important case.”

Her challenge centres on planning permission for oil extraction at the Horse Hill well site near Gatwick, granted in 2019 by Surrey County Council.

Ms Finch, who opposed the application, has argued at the High Court and Court of Appeal that the council acted unlawfully in failing to take into account greenhouse emissions resulting from the use of Horse Hill oil.

The council argued that it needed to consider only the emissions from production operations at the site.

She has now successfully appealed to the Supreme Court.

Ms Finch, a freelance editor, said:

“I know my case could be seen as just a little local planning dispute.

“But the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and it deals with matters which are of public and constitutional importance.

“I think the fact that it has agreed to hear the case shows that it knows the issue needs to be resolved one way or another.”

The Horse Hill site could produce an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of oil over the 20 years of permitted extraction. When burned, this could result in 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Currently councils do not have to take into account climate impacts like this.

But if Ms Finch wins her case, there could be major implications for the fossil fuel industry. She said:

“If we win, then all fossil fuel developments will have to look at the end-use emissions at the planning application stage, not just the emissions involved in the production itself.”

The hearing at the Supreme Court, expected next year, will focus on three parts of the Environmental Impact Regulations. These set out what should be considered in an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before a decision is made on planning permission.

Ms Finch said:

“We’re arguing that for a fossil fuel production development, the emissions caused by the end use of the fossil fuels should be part of that assessment. They should be quantified and assessed and then measured against targets.

“If councils don’t assess these at the time of giving planning permission, they never will be assessed because there is no other mechanism for that to happen.

“We know that the oil from Horse Hill could go anywhere. It could go abroad to be refined, come back, or be refined here. It could be burned in cars, in people’s heaters.

“It could be so dispersed that there is no way of calculating that impact once it has left Horse Hill.”

Ms Finch’s opposition to oil operations at Horse Hill dates back to 2010, when she first saw a notice about the first planning application at the site.

She objected to this application and a second one in 2017.

The third application, this time for oil production, came before Surrey County Council in September 2019.

By then, the UK government had committed to meeting a legally-binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Ms Finch said:

“We felt we were in a different place and there were much clearer legal reasons for the council to refuse the application because there had been so much progress in national policy and public awareness on the issue of climate change.

“Surrey County Council had itself declared a climate emergency and was writing a climate action plan. So that buoyed us up to write objections.”

But the council approved the application by seven votes to two. Mis Finch, who attended the planning committee meeting, said:

“I was shocked that the climate issue barely got a mention. There was a mention of the net zero 2050 target and one of the councillors said ‘oh, it’s only a target’ – implying it’s not something we really have to try to meet.”

The Weald Action Group, a network of organisations opposing oil and gas operations in southern England, decided to bring a legal challenge to the council’s decision.

The group needed an individual to take the case. Ms Finch, then living nearby in Redhill, said:

“I’d never expected that to be me. But when we looked around at people who were willing and able to do it, it turned out I was possibly in the best position.

“I don’t think that legal fights are necessarily the only way or the best way to deal with issues like this.

“But in the fight against climate change, we have to do what we can do. And this was something I could do, which is why I’m doing it.”

At the High Court in 2020, both sides quoted previous cases to support their arguments. But the judge, Mr Justice Holgate, dismissed her case, ruling that Surrey County Council could not take account of end-use emissions.

Ms Finch said:

“I felt there were enough previous cases that Judge Holgate was wrong when he said the council couldn’t possibly take account of end use emissions. I thought it was a really unsatisfying judgement and I couldn’t leave it there. So, it was worth taking the next step, to the Court of Appeal.”

At the appeal court in 2021, there were legal advances towards Ms Finch’s argument. One judge ruled in her favour. Two others said it was at the council’s discretion whether to take account of downstream emissions.

There is a risk that the Supreme Court could rule that the High Court position was right after all. But Ms Finch said it was a risk worth taking:

“It just seems too important to leave any avenues unexplored. I’m not a lawyer but to me it seems obvious that if the Environmental Impact Assessment is meant to look at all the likely, predictable environmental impacts, you can’t leave the climate impact of burning the fossil fuels out of a fossil fuel application because that is the biggest environmental impact.

“I still feel I was right all along: Surrey County Council should have considered those emissions and that’s why I’m taking it a step further.

“We definitely need clarification of the law and we hope that is what the Supreme Court will bring. The court will rule and we hope that end-use emissions will be part of an Environmental Impact Assessment for all fossil fuel production projects.”

She described her case as “a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the planning regime”:

“Planning decisions are made without looking at the wider implications.

“Each fossil fuel development is treated as a one-off. There is no reference to the fact there are a dozen more developments, what the cumulative emissions will be, or that there is a net zero target and that oil is going to stop being used.

“What on earth is the point of starting a 25-year operation to get it out of the ground?”

She said all the recent cases brought against public bodies on climate change and energy issues had key benefits:

“All of them are educating the judiciary and buying time, slowing things down.

“Even if we ultimately lose at Horse Hill, we’ve slowed down the development of the site, preventing oil extraction from going ahead.

“The law is far too slow and clumsy and I think we need drastic change, much faster. But anything we can do to slow down this particular development and other developments is worth doing.

“In time, perhaps, sanity will prevail and we won’t be digging up fossil fuels anymore. I think what we can do is to slow it down, educate the judges, and buy time. That’s really important and worth doing.”

Her case has been supported by the Weald Action Group (“a big tower of strength”) and Norwood Hill Residents’ Association, representing people living around the Horse Hill site.

“They are a huge rock solid base of support who have lived with it and are personally threatened by the plans in the way that I’m not”, she said.

Local supporters have donated and raised money about £60,000 for the previous court cases.

For the Supreme Court hearing, the newly-formed Law for Change Fund will pay for lawyers and court fees. She welcomed its funding and support:

“That an organisation made up of lawyers has looked at us and thought the case was worth supporting is very validating.”

Ms Finch also has costs protection under the Arhus Convention, which limits the costs Surrey County Council and UK Oil & Gas can claim against her if she loses to £7,500.

Categories: Legal, slider

22 replies »

  1. I also note UK is to take it’s first shipment of LNG from AUSTRALIA next week, whilst the “we’s” want to stop exploration at Loxley! How on earth does that stack up regarding cost, taxation available in UK to support those who need it, perhaps with energy bills, and protection of the environment? It does not. All that is left is selfish Nimbyism dressed up to fool the gullible. Well, Mr.Hunt, it seems to have fooled very few.
    I suppose after getting many in the UK to convert to diesel with promises of better for the environment, there is a tendency for politicians to think they can market any old nonsense. Remember that? Oh yes, let’s buy one of those nice clean German diesels! LOL. Let’s forget that UK has very limited refining capacity for diesel so much will have to be imported, and a nice big chunk of that from Russia! LOL. And who is now trying to be rebranded as a spokesperson for the environment? Oh yes, the very same one. And those people who did the “right” thing? Oh yes, here is the huge premium we now require you to pay for your diesel because we now feel it is not so good for the environment!
    Government energy policy has long been like someone with a blindfold playing darts with various parties shouting in their ear how to direct the darts. Maybe, the result could be a little better if they took off the blindfold, told the various parties to clear off, and used their own initiative? Until then, EVs being promoted by the same lot? I shall avoid the sirens and expect hydrogen will suddenly be noted can already give the range, can be distributed in the same way, through the same (modified) distribution network and can have fuel duty plonked upon it pretty easily. And, fits the pattern of the family who want to visit the Supermarket on a Friday night, do their weekly shop and fill their vehicle for the following week. And local communities do not lose a great chunk of their parking spaces for cars to be plugged in.
    Decarbonize fossil fuel and the environment issue is sorted. Maybe cost will remain a problem but it rarely does for long.

  2. Well said Martyn, but you’re not meant to quote reality, it seems ( according to Ms Finch ) you’re meant to fall in line with ” the educated ” who are being funded by the uneducated masses to the tune of £60,000, who also has a failsafe £7,500 costs insurance, ( that must be an EU directive), she has given the REAL reason for the appeal which is to slow down the development as happily stated by herself.
    She then ironically complains about the length of time the mitigation takes, ( hilarious).

    Don’t they understand that they are the reason for the fuel crisis we are in at the moment and they continue to make it worse, if their cause is so great why are they not campaigning against all imports of fossil fuels? Because they know we really need them and will do until there is a reliable alternative in place.

    And she is so pleased that money grabbing lawyers are willing to take up the case, well that’s no surprise is it, and how patronising she’s educating the judiciary.

    I have nothing against the measures that are being taken with renewable energy, but for her to say we don’t need fossil fuels now is crazy, what is not produced in the UK will be imported, so our carbon footprint will not be reduced by her actions.

  3. Well, Steve, “we” can always turn wheat into fuel for motor vehicles. Then the food costs spiral because there is a shortage of wheat, whilst some are even shown moaning at farmers because the combine harvester made their picnic sandwich dusty! (See today’s inflation data.) And the motorist finds his/her vehicle doesn’t perform as expected, so their pockets are lightened further, with their trousers already around their ankles. And then, scientists in USA suddenly turn around, and state that the carbon footprint of growing cereal for fuel is no better than using fossil fuel. Both sets of scientists get paid-by the public!

    (Just ate my first sweet corn from my garden. Delicious. Much better in my tank, than my car’s.)

    I remember being in a meeting when UK crop production and UK intended wheat use for biofuel were discussed. It was not my “baby” but I did mention the volume was the amount of UK surplus after a very good harvest, which would have previously been exported to those who had a deficit. Answer? Shrugged shoulders.

    When anyone claims intelligence as an excuse I get very alarmed. The same thing happened in Europe in the 1930s. It didn’t have any basis and didn’t end well.

    I am never too sure how the Courts will judge things, but they are usually pretty hot on not setting a precedent in one situation that could then be (mis)used in many others. My common sense-no intelligence claimed-would suggest this case fails that test. Always has, always will.

    • The moral high ground ms finch is trying to raise, on the education, as no work experience of what I don’t know what her expertise and background on the highly regulated onshore operations are, how close to the Gatwick gusher she lives, what major concern is, but to the benefit in supplying employment, paying UK tax and energy security, Well Done Horsehill!, but as her cause is being funded ironically by donations on a just giving (style) page, and has been limited as stated above by an EU directive it seems this type of activist protesting has to stop, unless the activist suffers real loss they’ll just keep on emptying the pockets of the gullible and filling the pockets of the lawyers, who are more than happy to take the money and increase their platform for the ever woke ideology follower.

    • Maybe we should ask ms finch why we are in an energy crisis, possibly because of the eco rhetoric she has been pushing, unfortunately it creates the brainwashing in to the greens and eco nutters in false information, ‘See the riots in energy producers STOP producing energy’!! Global Armageddon will commence!

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