Pivotal case against UK fossil fuel project gets its day in the Supreme Court

Horse Hill oil development Fossil Fuels
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A legal challenge against an onshore oil project in Horse Hill, Surrey will be heard in the Supreme Court on 21 and 22 June. The years-long case challenges Surrey County Council’s failure to consider the emissions produced from the burning of fossil fuels, rather than those that occur only during the production of them, when granting planning permission for the development.

Rowan Smith is the Leigh Day solicitor who is representing campaigner Sarah Finch in the case. He has pointed to the pivotal nature of the proceedings. Smith said:

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this case. The Supreme Court will rule conclusively on whether or not the climate change impact of fossil fuel development in the UK must be taken into account before planning permissions are granted.

In other words, the court’s ruling could have major impact on future fossil fuel developments and, more importantly, on the planet.

The long battle over Horse Hill

As the Canary has previously reported, Surrey County Council approved the oil project in 2019. It’s an extension of an existing site referred to as the Gatwick Gusher. Horse Hill Developments Ltd could potentially extract 3m tonnes of oil from the site over 20 years. The company is a subsidiary of UK Oil & Gas (UKOG).

Finch – as part of the Weald Action Group, which opposes fossil fuel development in southern England – has legally challenged the project since its initial approval:

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The High Court heard Finch’s case in November 2020 but dismissed the claim. The Court of Appeal reviewed this decision. In a 2:1 ruling, the judges decided that the High Court’s dismissal was right. However, a dissenting judge found that the council’s exclusion of the emissions produced from the burning of fossil fuels – known as Scope 3 emissions – in its environmental impact assessments (EIA) for the project meant that it failed to “assess the relevant and required effects of the proposed development”.

A threat to fossil fuel interests

The significance of the case is apparent in the parties that have chosen to join it. Finch’s claim is perhaps unsurprisingly supported by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace UK.

In a rare move, the UK environment watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – intervened in the case. Explaining why, the body’s general counsel Peter Ashford previously 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.

Moreover, West Cumbria Mining Ltd has also intervened, signalling that the fossil fuel industry sees the case as a threat to its interests. The mining company is behind the deep coalmine in Whitehaven, which will be the UK’s first for decades. The Climate Change Committee has calculated that the mine will create the equivalent of 220m tonnes of CO2 during its planned lifecycle. This includes emissions from burning the coal as well as producing it.

West Cumbria Mining Ltd’s intervention means that it, along with the other intervenors, will be able to make submissions – orally or in writing – to inform the court’s understanding of the case.

A critically important case

Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe has spelled out why the case is relevant to the mining company. She said:

This is a critically important legal challenge that could have significant repercussions for new fossil fuel projects, including the proposed new coal mine in Cumbria.

Meanwhile, Finch has argued that the case will bring much needed clarity on whether authorities can ignore downstream emissions in their planning permission decisions. She said:

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.

I hope that the Supreme Court will confirm that no fossil fuel development – coal, oil or gas – should be allowed without consideration of its full climate impact.

Featured image via UK Oil & Gas PLC / YouTube

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