A group of people with banners standing on a bridge

Horse Hill oil: landmark legal climate win to impact UK fossil fuel plans

Activists have won a stunning victory at the Supreme Court against oil drilling in Surrey. Find out how this is another step towards a fossil free future.
  Published:  20 Jun 2024    |      3 minute read

In an outstanding win, the Supreme Court upheld Sarah Finch's climate change legal challenge and ruled that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully by granting planning permission for oil production at Horse Hill in the Surrey countryside without considering the climate impact from when the oil is inevitably burned. This could have a huge impact on all future proposed fossil fuel developments in the UK.

We supported Sarah Finch in her legal challenge, brought on behalf of the Weald Action Group, against Surrey County Council's decision to approve oil production at Horse Hill in Surrey, including the drilling of 4 new oil wells.

When the council approved the oil drilling, the environmental impact assessment didn't take into account the climate impact of the oil when it was actually used. Only the operational emissions from the process of taking the oil out of the ground were assessed, not from when the oil is burned – so called "downstream" emissions. 

The oil wells are projected to produce 3.3 million tonnes of crude oil, largely for transport fuel use, over the next 20 years, emitting over 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide when it's burned. For comparison, on average we each produce 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year in the UK. In our legal submissions in the case, we argued that these huge carbon emissions from the inevitable burning of the oil should have been considered when the decision on planning permission was made.


A huge win that could have enormous significance for future fossil fuel projects

This win in the Supreme Court comes after a hard-fought legal battle which has lasted more than 4 years. Sarah Finch and the Weald Action Group went to court year after year, showing immense grit and determination. And we supported the group’s case at each stage as a legal intervener. The results aren’t just a win for Horse Hill, but they could have enormous impacts on all new UK fossil fuel developments – including proposals for a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria.

Now that the court has decided that Surrey County Council should have taken account of these downstream emissions for this oil project, it may now impact decisions by other planning authorities when promoters seek permission for new fossil fuel production developments. 

The oil and gas companies may act like business-as-usual is still an option, but it will be very hard for planning authorities to permit new fossil fuel developments – in the Weald, the North Sea or anywhere else – when their true climate impact is clear for all to see.

Sarah Finch – Weald Action Group.

Campaigner Sarah Finch celebrates outside the Supreme Court
Sarah Finch at Horse Hill Supreme Court 2024 judgment

The Office for Environmental Protection also joined the case. It's a public body that acts as the independent environmental watchdog post Brexit. It seeks to protect and improve the environment by holding government and other public authorities to account. This is its first court intervention since it was set up in 2021. Its submissions addressed the importance of clear rules in order to promote good, consistent and informed environmental decision-making. 

West Cumbria Mining, the company behind the proposed Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria, also intervened. It's clear it did so because it was concerned this case could impact on the legality of the planning permission for its mine. We're also challenging that planning decision. And now with this win, we believe this will strengthen our case against the Whitehaven coal mine too. 

The finale to more than 4 years of court proceedings fighting this fossil fuel project in the Surrey hills

Planning permission for the oil drilling was granted in 2019, so Sarah submitted a legal challenge on behalf of the Weald Action Group. We intervened to support Sarah's case at the High Court in November 2020, but the judgment went against us. So next Sarah appealed to the Court of Appeal in November 2021, which very unusually returned a split judgment. Two judges said the Council had acted lawfully, but the third said it hadn't. Sarah then took the challenge to the highest court in the country, the Supreme Court. We intervened again, and the case was heard on 21 and 22 June 2023.

We’re thrilled with this result, as this historic ruling in our favour from the Supreme Court is an important victory in the fight to stop further new fossil fuel extraction projects in the UK altogether, and make the emissions cuts needed to meet crucial climate targets. This is a stunning victory for Sarah Finch and the Weald Action Group.

Friends of the Earth is now urging all political parties to commit to a ban on any new fossil fuel projects.

The UK is already off track for meeting legally-binding carbon reduction targets, and its international pledge to reduce emissions by two-thirds by 2030.  

With this court victory, our case against the coal mine is strengthened, because the developer for the mine didn't include information on the downstream emissions in its environmental statement either. 

Gas, oil and coal companies have been fighting tooth and nail to avoid having to account for all the climate-harming emissions their developments cause – but it’s clear from this Supreme Court judgment that they can't do this anymore.

Katie de Kauwe, Friends of the Earth lawyer.

It's thanks to people like you that we've got this far. A small donation today will help us keep fighting fossil fuel developments.

Your donation will help grow our grassroots network that's dedicated to protecting people and planet.

Your donation will help grow our grassroots network that's dedicated to protecting people and planet.