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Horse Hill oil: a legal challenge with real climate impact

We’re supporting a legal challenge brought by activist Sarah Finch against proposed oil drilling at Horse Hill, because the planning authority did not consider its full climate impact. If we win, it could affect other planned fossil fuel developments in the UK.
  Published:  28 Jun 2023    |      2 minute read

We've supported a legal challenge brought by activist 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, it referred to an environmental impact assessment that 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 its burned. For comparison, on average we each produce 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year in the UK. Our legal argument is that these huge carbon emissions from the inevitable burning of the oil should have been considered when planning permission was given.

Significance for future fossil fuel projects

This case clearly has huge implications for future oil, coal and gas projects across the UK. If the court decides that Surrey County Council should have taken account of these downstream emissions for this oil project, it would affect decisions by other planning authorities asked to give permission for new fossil fuel production developments. 

The biggest climate impact from this project will occur when the oil is eventually burned. If councils can ignore these downstream impacts when making planning decisions, then we have no hope of staying within safe climate limits.

Sarah Finch - Weald Action Group.

Sarah Finch speaking to a crowd outside the Supreme Court
Sarah Finch at the Supreme Court

Sarah Finch speaking outside the Supreme Court

Also joining the case is the recently created Office for Environmental Protection, 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. It’s seeking clarity on what environmental impact assessments should include to promote good environmental decision-making. 

West Cumbria Mining, the company behind the proposed Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria, is also intervening. Its clear it is doing this because this case could impact on the legality of the planning permission for its mine. We are also challenging that planning decision.

The finale to 4 years 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 provided legal support for Sarah at the High Court in November 2020, but the case was rejected. So we took the case to the Court of Appeal in November 2021, which very unusually returned a split judgement. 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, and with our legal support the case was heard on 21 and 22 June 2023.

We're expecting the ruling from the Supreme Court sometime later this year. If the appeal succeeds, we could have another argument as to why the decision to grant permission for a new coal mine in Cumbria was also unlawful, as that too didn't take into account the full emissions from the coal that will be extracted. 

In the midst of a climate crisis, it’s incomprehensible that planning bodies can give the go-ahead to major new fossil fuel developments without taking their full climate impact into account.

Katie de Kauwe, Friends of the Earth lawyer.

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