Fossil fuel opponents score victory in a UK Supreme Court ruling on case near a London airport

Environmental campaigner Sarah Finch, center, celebrates outside the Supreme Court in London, Thursday June 20, 2024 after justices ruled that emissions generated from burning fuel should be considered when granting planning permission for oil sites. The 3-2 ruling Thursday in London was a victory for fossil fuel opponents. (Callum Parke/PA via AP)

LONDON (AP) — Fossil fuel opponents won a major victory Thursday as the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that planners reviewing well-drilling permits must consider the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the extracted oil.

A woman had challenged a decision by Surrey County Council south of London to allow additional oil wells at a site called Horse Hill near London Gatwick Airport.

Sarah Finch, acting on behalf of Weald Action Group, argued that the environmental impact assessment conducted before the permit was approved had failed by only considering emissions from extracting the oil. She argued it should also have considered the future emissions, when the oil produced over 20 years was burned.

The Supreme Court agreed in 3-2 decision.

“The council’s failure to assess the effect on climate of the combustion of the oil that would be produced from the proposed well site means that its decision to grant planning permission for the project was unlawful,” the court said.

Finch, who had lost at the High Court and Court of Appeal, called the ruling “a massive vindication" and said she was “over the moon.”

“In climate science we hear a lot about tipping points, Amazon deforestation, melting permafrost, things that accelerate global warming in an unpredictable and frightening way," she said. "Today we’ve seen a tipping point in the other direction. No longer will any planning authority be allowed to wave through fossil fuel production without fully considering the climate impact.”

The victory comes as the number of climate-related court cases has more than doubled since 2017, according to a 2023 report by the United Nations, as activists take to the courts to force climate action.

In April this year, a group of older Swiss women won a landmark ruling at Europe’s highest court urging countries to better protect their citizens from the effects of climate change. And in January, Montana's Supreme Court upheld a ruling in favor of a group of young environmental activists saying state agencies were violating their right to a clean and healthy environment.

Activists have also taken oil conglomerates, like Shell and TotalEnergies to court to force them to slash their emissions or halt new projects.

The area where the drilling was permitted was once dubbed the “Gatwick Gusher” and U.K. Oil & Gas announced in 2015 that tests showed it could produce 30% of the country’s oil demand — all within a short drive from London.

Protesters opposed to the project increased in number after a series of small earthquakes that began in 2018 were blamed by some on oil drilling. A report produced by the Oil & Gas Authority found no causal link between the quakes the petroleum activity, but skeptics remain.

The approval by the council in 2019 would have allowed the site to expand from two to six wells that would extract 3.6 metric tons (3.3. million U.S. tons) of oil over 20 years.

UKOG indicated that its plans for the site would now change as part of a larger strategic shift and be toned to down to avoid an environmental review.

“The court’s rather perplexing retrospective ruling, which is counter to all prior judgments, further underscores why the company’s focus over the past few years has shifted away from oil and gas and firmly towards creating and delivering strategic underground hydrogen storage,” Stephen Sanderson, UKOG’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The company said it would work with the council to come up with a plan that would call for producing fewer than the 3,700 barrels of oil a day that triggers a mandatory environmental impact report.