Supreme Court ruling is ‘massive vindication’, says campaigner who brought case

A Supreme Court ruling which says emissions created by burning fossil fuels need to be considered when granting planning permission for new drilling sites is a “massive vindication”, the campaigner who brought the successful case has said.

Sarah Finch challenged Surrey County Council’s decision to allow the expansion of an oil well site at Horse Hill, near Horley in Surrey, in 2019.

Ms Finch, acting on behalf of Weald Action Group, argued that the environmental impact assessment carried out before planning permission was granted – which only took into account the impact of extracting the oil – should have taken into account the “downstream” emissions produced when the oil was burned.

She challenged an earlier Court of Appeal ruling dismissing her case, having also lost a legal battle in the High Court.

And in a ruling on Thursday, Supreme Court justices ruled three to two in favour of allowing her appeal and quashed the decision to grant planning permission for the site.

Speaking outside the UK’s highest court in Westminster after the judgment, Ms Finch described the ruling as “a massive vindication of what we’ve been saying”.

She told reporters: “This means that in future, every fossil fuel development project that’s of the size to meet environmental impact assessment requirements, they will have to assess the downstream emissions from the fuel when it’s burned.

“That is going to make it a lot harder for anyone to open a new oil or coal field and it has implications for some that have already been agreed but are subject to legal challenges.”

Later describing the decision as a “huge win”, Ms Finch continued: “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.

“I think 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.”

“Together we have just made the future safer,” she added.

Friends of the Earth, which supported the legal challenge, said that the landscape surrounding planning permission for fossil fuel extraction has been “fundamentally changed” by the ruling.

Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer for the campaigning group, 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.”

She continued: ““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 five years of grit and determination, in going to court year after year against adversaries with far greater financial resources than they have.”

In the judgment, Lord Leggatt said “it seems to me plain” that emissions created by burning oil extracted at the site “are effects of the project”, and as a result “it follows that the council’s decision was unlawful”.

In the ruling backed by Lord Kitchin and Lady Rose, he continued: “The reasons accepted by the council for excluding the combustion emissions from consideration and assessing only direct greenhouse gas emissions from within the well site boundary are therefore demonstrably flawed”

He added: “In my view, there was no basis on which the council could reasonably decide that it was unnecessary to assess the combustion emissions.”

Lord Leggatt also said that he could see “no reason why combustion emissions that will occur elsewhere as a consequence of the operation of a project to extract oil should be regarded differently” from emissions generated by extracting the material.

The justice later added that while the law did not prevent planning authorities from approving projects which may harm the environment, the authority needed to reach a “reasoned conclusion” on the impact.

But he said it was “not a valid ground” to argue that the oil being refined elsewhere before being burned meant it did not need to be considered by the council as part of the environmental assessment.

Under the plans, the oil well site, run by Horse Hill Developments, would have seen the fossil fuel extracted over 20 years, producing around 3.3 million tonnes of oil.