Oil: Court of Appeal to hear challenge to controversial drilling permission

UK government to defend council’s decision in court
  Published:  16 Nov 2021    |      3 minute read

A woman who opposes Surrey County Council’s decision to allow oil drilling in greenbelt countryside, near Gatwick airport, is taking her legal battle to the Court of Appeal today.

The challenge has been brought by Sarah Finch (who has been campaigning against the Horse Hill oil drilling operation since 2013), supported by the Weald Action Group, and is due to last a day and a half.

Friends of the Earth has been given permission to intervene in the challenge and will support Sarah’s case. Permission for the oil drilling was granted by Surrey County Council in 2019, just months after it declared a climate emergency.

The UK government has also been given permission to take part in the court case as an interested party and is defending the decision by Surrey County Council.

It is estimated that the development could lead to more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent being released into the atmosphere when the oil is ultimately burnt.

The legal challenge centres around Surrey County Council’s decision not to take into account the full climate impact of the oil development in the context of the current climate emergency.

The Court of Appeal 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 climate impacts of the development – including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions arising from the burning of the oil produced at the site when it is actually used. That is where the majority of emissions will arise.

This legal challenge is likely to have wide-ranging implications. The High Court’s original judgement that Surrey County Council did act lawfully is already being cited by other fossil fuel developers to try to justify excluding GHG emissions that aren’t operational emissions. For example, West Cumbria Mining Limited sought to do this in the recent Whitehaven coal mine planning inquiry.

Sarah Finch said:

"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 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.”

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.”

ENDS

Notes

  1. Sarah is acting on behalf of the Weald Action Group, an umbrella for local groups that have been campaigning against the extraction of oil and gas in the southeast of England. She is being represented in court by Marc Willers QC, Garden Court Chambers and Estelle Dehon, Cornerstone Chambers, and her solicitors are Leigh Day LLP.

  1. Friends of the Earth Limited is represented by Paul Brown QC of Landmark Chambers, and Nina Pindham of No. 5 Chambers.

  1. Friends of the Earth’s briefing on the Horse Hill case can be viewed here.

  1. Last month a new report by Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation revealed that fossil fuel companies are planning to seek approval for 40 damaging new coal, oil and gas extraction projects in the UK by 2025. The full report can be viewed here.

  1. Friends of the Earth opposes the granting of planning permission for the Whitehaven coal mine and was a Rule 6 Party in the planning inquiry held in September 2021.