UK’s highest court to rule on climate impact of onshore oil production

The final court in the UK is to make a landmark ruling in a case about the climate impacts of onshore oil and gas extraction.

The Supreme Court

Environmental campaigner, Sarah Finch, has been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court in her fight against oil production at Horse Hill in Surrey.

She has previously argued at the High Court and Court of Appeal that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in 2019 in granting planning permission for long-term oil production at the Horse Hill site near Gatwick Airport.

She said the council should have taken into account the emissions from the end use of the oil, in cars, planes or boilers, before making its decision.

Her case is that an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of Horse Hill oil could be burned, releasing 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.

Surrey County Council has argued that it needed to consider only the emissions from the operation of the Horse Hill site.

If Ms Finch is successful, the case could have huge implications for new fossil fuel production schemes.

In an interview with DrillOrDrop, she said:

“I feel vindicated because I always thought this was a nationally-important case. I know it could be seen as just a little local planning dispute. But the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and they deal 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.”

She said:

“Granting planning permission for more oil extraction in the middle of a climate crisis without considering its full impact on our planet is completely nonsensical, and, I believe, unlawful.

“If councils don’t assess all the climate impacts of a proposed development before giving it permission, then we have no chance whatever of staying within safe climate limits.”

Ms Finch has been campaigning since 2018 against oil production at Horse Hill.

Her solicitor, Rowan Smith, at the law firm Leigh Day, said:

“The Supreme Court’s very welcome decision to hear this matter is further proof that our client has been right to continue this long-running legal battle.

“At its heart, this case is about whether it is lawful for carbon emissions resulting from the use of oil to be completely ignored when permission is granted for that oil to be extracted.

“Our client has been clear throughout that, if that was allowed, then the whole system of environmental legal protection would be undermined. We look forward to presenting her case to the UK’s highest court.”

Hearing at the Supreme Court. Photo: The Supreme Court

Ms Finch’s case at the Supreme Court is expected to be heard in 2023 and will centre on regulations 4 and 8 and paragraph 4 of the Environmental Impact Regulations.

The law lords will rule on whether these regulations require end-use emissions, also known as downstream emissions, to be assessed in an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before a decision is made on planning permission.

The issue has never been considered by the Supreme Court or the House of Lords.

Three appeal court judges were split over the issue when they ruled in February 2022.

One of the judges, Lord Justice Moylan, allowed the appeal. He argued that the council’s failure to consider downstream emissions meant the Horse Hill EIA did not comply with the regulations and was unlawful.

The other judges, Lord Lewison and Sir Keith Lindblom, dismissed the case.

They said it was a matter for the local planning authority to decide whether downstream emissions were a significant effect of the development. They ruled that Surrey County Council gave lawful reasons in arguing that downstream emissions were not an effect of the development and did not need to be assessed.

That ruling means that local authorities can currently grant planning permission for oil and gas production without considering the climate impact of end-use emissions in the EIA.

Ms Finch’s case will be one of the first to be supported by the Law for Change Fund. This was established in 2022 to fund legal actions that bring about social change. It will pay the costs of her legal team and court fees.

The case has also been awarded cost protection under the United Nations’ Aarhus Convention. This means if Ms Finch were unsuccessful, the costs she would have to pay to Surrey County Council and the site operator, a subsidiary of UK Oil & Gas plc, would be capped at £7,500.

The legal costs of previous hearings were met by crowdfunding and fundraising activities by local campaigners.

DrillOrDrop invited Surrey County Council and UK Oil & Gas plc to comment. The company issued a statement that the Supreme Court hearing was disappointing but not surprising. It said:

“Planning consent currently remains in full force and lawful oil production at Horse Hill will continue until further notice.

“the Company and its legal counsel remain convinced that planning consent was granted entirely lawfully, and will, therefore, strongly contest any further action against its interests.”


DrillOrDrop interview with Sarah Finch

Court of Appeal split ruling

High Court ruling

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