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 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.