Campaigner seeks test case on emissions in court action against English oil wells

Developers were given a 25-year licence to expand Horse Hill site and pump new wells in Surrey

A new legal effort was launched on Tuesday to halt a controversial scheme to extract oil from protected countryside in southern England.

The project to expand a two-well site at Horse Hill, Surrey, by drilling four new ones was agreed by the county council in a 25-year deal just months after it declared a climate emergency in 2019. The council had pledged then to help “support people out of private fossil-fuel powered cars” as part of its environmental strategy.

The council won a ruling at the UK’s High Court in December last year following a challenge by campaigner Sarah Finch who said that officials failed to consider the full environmental impact of emissions from pumped oil.

She returned to court on Tuesday to challenge the ruling that had cleared the way to drill for oil at the site near Gatwick Airport. Campaigners say the development could lead to more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent being released into the atmosphere when the oil is burnt.

The Court of Appeal will be asked to rule on whether the environmental impact assessment should have taken into account the full impact of emissions from both the site and where the oil is eventually used. Emissions from cars and factories that would eventually use the oil were not included in the council’s assessment.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth said the case has already been cited by other developers to justify excluding greenhouse gas emissions that are not directly from the site.

The challenge comes just three days after a deal was finally struck at the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow that included an agreement to reduce subsidies for fossil fuels. The UK has committed to becoming net zero by 2050 and achieving a balance between greenhouse gases sent into the environment and those taken out.

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.”

Lawyers for Friends of the Earth said it was “ludicrous” to grant planning permission for more oil extraction without considering its full impact on the planet.

Solicitor Katie de Kauwe said other countries considered “end-use” emissions as part of their environmental impact statements.

Updated: November 16th 2021, 1:44 PM