In rare move, environment watchdog chimes in on Surrey oil project legal case

Campaigners outside the Court of Appeal during hearing for Surrey oil project case
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The UK environment watchdog has applied to intervene in a legal case over the approval of an oil project in Surrey. The campaigners behind the case have welcomed the rare move by the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

Intervention in Surrey oil project case

The OEP is a relatively new public body that came into being due to the Environment Act 2021. Its stated mission is to:

protect and improve the environment by holding government and other public authorities to account

On 9 February, the body revealed that it has filed an application to intervene in the appeal, which the Supreme Court is due to hear in June. The appeal case relates to an onshore oil project in Surrey.

As the Canary has previously reported, Surrey County Council approved the oil project in 2019. Horse Hill Developments Ltd – a subsidiary of UK Oil & Gas (UKOG) – could potentially extract 3 million tonnes of oil from the site over 20 years.

The case revolves around whether the council should have considered downstream emissions in its environmental impact assessments (EIA) for the development. Known as Scope 3 emissions, these are emissions produced from the burning of fossil fuels, rather than those that occur during the production of them.

Sarah Finch, who as part of the Weald Action Group is behind the legal action, insists that the council should have taken Scope 3 emissions into account because they are an indirect effect of the oil project.

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The High Court heard and dismissed Finch’s case in 2020. The Court of Appeal reviewed this decision and in a 2:1 ruling in 2022, Appeal Court judges decided that the High Court’s dismissal was right.

Finch secured permission to appeal the case at the UK’s highest court – the Supreme Court – in August 2022.

The law needs clarifying

Explaining why the OEP has applied to intervene in the case, the body’s general counsel Peter Ashford said:

Environmental impact assessment is so important for integrating the environment into planning decision-making. We are interested in this case because of the opportunity to clarify the law here to ensure proper decision-making that enhances environmental protection.

Campaigners welcomed the move by the body, which they said is a first in the OEP’s short history. The Weald Action Group’s Vicki Elcoate commented:

The OEP is quite right that the law needs clarifying. Each new fossil fuel development locks in decades of future greenhouse gas emissions – and no regulatory process is directly measuring and mitigating them. The present situation means different planning authorities can make different decisions about which environmental impacts of a project to consider. If the full impacts aren’t assessed at the planning application stage, it is difficult to see how we can meet vital climate targets.

Finch also said she was “delighted” by the OEP’s application. The body’s decision to do so “reflects the legal importance and seriousness” of the Supreme Court appeal, she asserted. Finch added:

Given the OEP’s responsibility to ensure compliance with environmental law, and its expertise, its input into the case will be crucial and helpful to the Court.

The Supreme Court decision on whether to permit the OEP’s intervention is currently pending.

Featured image via Sarah Finch

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