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Horse Hill: Historic win as Supreme Court upholds landmark climate case

news release

Groundbreaking judgment could have profound implications for new fossil fuel projects, including Cumbrian coal mine and North Sea oil and gas fields 

Surrey County Council acted unlawfully by giving planning permission for oil production at Horse Hill in the Surrey countryside without considering the climate impacts of when the oil is inevitably burned, the Supreme Court has ruled today.  

The judge said that planning permission for 4 new oil wells and 20 years of oil production at Horse Hill will now be quashed.

The landmark judgment follows a legal challenge brought by former Surrey resident Sarah Finch, on behalf of the Weald Action Group, and supported from the start by Friends of the Earth as a legal intervener. The case challenged Surrey County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for oil drilling at Horse Hill, near Gatwick airport in the Surrey countryside. 

It could have enormous impacts on all new UK fossil fuel developments – including proposals for a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria and North Sea oil and gas projects.  

Ms Finch argued that the environmental impact assessment carried out by Surrey County Council – which declared a climate emergency in 2019 – should’ve considered the climate impacts that would inevitably arise from burning the oil, known as ‘Scope 3’ or ‘downstream’ emissions. This didn’t happen, despite the reality that more than 10 million tonnes of carbon emissions would be produced when the oil is burnt.  

Scope 3 emissions are increasingly being left out of environmental impact assessments when planning applications are made for fossil fuel projects, including plans for a new coal mine on Cumbria and new North Sea oil developments, despite the huge impact they’d have on the escalating climate crisis.  

Today’s groundbreaking ruling is a heavy blow for the fossil fuel industry. When the developers for the Whitehaven coal mine and the Rosebank oil field in the North Sea sought consent for their projects, they provided no information on downstream emissions in their environmental statements. They’re both subject to legal challenges, and today’s judgment clearly has implications and strengthens the cases against them.

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

Friends of the Earth says that the Supreme Court ruling means that: 

·       The landscape around the granting of planning permission for fossil fuel extraction has been fundamentally changed.

·       Going forwards, it will be harder for fossil fuel developers to get consent for their projects. The judgment is very clear that the inevitability of the end-use emissions of this oil project meant they were indirect effects of the development, and so needed to be factored into the environmental impact assessment.  As is recorded in the Supreme Court’s judgment: “The whole purpose of extracting fossil fuels is to make hydrocarbons available for combustion”.

·       In giving the majority judgment, Lord Leggatt said: “I do not accept the premise that it would be wrong for a local planning authority, in deciding whether to grant planning permission, to take into account the fact that the proposed use of the land is one that will contribute to global warming through fossil fuel extraction.”

·       The government’s controversial decision to give the go-ahead to a new coal mine in Cumbria in December 2022 could well be impacted. The carbon emissions from burning the extracted coal were not included in the developer’s environmental statement. Friends of the Earth and local campaign group South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) have brought legal challenges to the Secretary of State’s decision in the High Court, which will take place on 16-18 July 2024.

·       Uplift and Greenpeace are challenging the government’s decision to allow development of Rosebank, the UK’s largest untapped North Sea oilfield, which could also be impacted.

Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe said: 

“This historic ruling is a watershed moment in the fight to stop further fossil fuel extraction projects in the UK and make the emissions cuts needed to meet crucial climate targets. It is a huge boost to everyone involved in resisting fossil fuel projects.

“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. Now, the highest court in the country has ruled that planning permission for an oil project was granted unlawfully because there was no consideration of its full climate impact.

“This judgment will make it harder for new fossil fuel projects to go ahead. They can no longer claim that downstream emissions are someone else’s problem. Now, when fossil fuel companies apply for planning permission, it follows from the Supreme Court’s judgment, that the end-use emissions must be considered by the planning authority. 

“This is a stunning victory for Sarah Finch and the Weald Action Group, after nearly 5 years of grit and determination, in going to court year after year against adversaries with far greater financial resources than they have. Despite setbacks in the lower courts, they never gave up. Friends of the Earth is incredibly proud to have supported Sarah and this groundbreaking challenge through all its legal stages.” 

Campaigner Sarah Finch said:  

“I am absolutely over the moon to have won this important case. The Weald Action Group has always believed it was wrong to allow oil production without assessing its full climate impacts, and the Supreme Court has shown we were right.

 “This is a welcome step towards a safer, fairer future. 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.

“I thank the Weald Action Group, Friends of the Earth and everyone who has been part of the long campaign to win this result. And I thank my lawyers for their commitment and hard work.”

ENDS.

For more information and interviews contact the Friends of the Earth press office on 020 7566 1649 or email  media@foe.co.uk.

Notes to editors:

​Supporters and campaigners will be gathering for a rally, hosted by the Weald Action Group, outside the Supreme Court. Photos and video will be available to download here: https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fo/u34pzmwvzc5lgdyijb6zv/AFMm-m0jZ-aO-hoWsPcx99I?rlkey=0q8jdihuen6yjmb78fji1o1x5&e=1&dl=0

​A Friends of the Earth legal briefing will be available here: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate/supreme-court-judgment-horse-hill-oil  

Background information: Sarah Finch brought this case on behalf of the Weald Action Group, an umbrella organisation for local groups that campaign against the extraction of oil and gas in the south east of England: https://www.wealdactiongroup.org.uk/2024/06/supreme-court-judgment-on-horse-hill-case-to-be-issued-on-20-june-2024/  

​Sarah is being represented in court by Marc Willers KC of Garden Court Chambers, Estelle Dehon KC and Ruchi Parekh of Cornerstone Barristers, and her solicitors are Rowan Smith, Carol Day and Julia Eriksen at Leigh Day LLP. ​

Friends of the Earth Limited is represented in the case by Paul Brown KC of Landmark Chambers, and Nina Pindham of Cornerstone Barristers and by Matthew McFeeley and Hannah Brown of Richard Buxton Solicitors. The lead in-house lawyer at Friends of the Earth is Katie de Kauwe.

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