Court of Appeal hearing for climate campaigner battling development of Surrey oil wells

Monday 15 November 2021

Sarah Finch, a climate campaigner fighting to prevent the drilling of new oil wells at Horse Hill in Surrey, has a hearing at the Court of Appeal on Tuesday, 16 November and Wednesday, 17 November.

Sarah is represented by Marc Willers QC of the Garden Court Chambers Environmental Law Team. Marc is leading Estelle Dehon of Cornerstone Barristers and is instructed by Rowan Smith of Leigh Day solicitors.

The hearing will be available to watch live here.

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Sarah Finch is fighting Surrey County Council’s decision to grant Horse Hill Developments Ltd planning permission for the drilling and production of oil, for over 20 years, at a site in south-east Surrey near to Gatwick Airport.

Although Sarah’s judicial review claim was rejected by the High Court, an appeal was given permission by Lord Justice Lewison who said there were compelling reasons for the appeal to be heard, stating the importance of the lawful interpretation of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations as well as the “considerable public concern” over greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Sarah will ask the Court of Appeal to consider whether the EIA used as part of Surrey Council’s decision-making process should have considered the full climate impacts of the development, including GHG emissions arising from the combustion of the oil produced at the site. Particularly in light of the commitments made at the global climate summit COP 26 to limit GHG emissions, this matters hugely.

Friends of the Earth, who have permission to intervene in Sarah’s appeal, say the High Court’s judgment is being cited by other fossil fuel developers to try to justify excluding GHG emissions that aren’t produced on site, with disastrous impacts on the environment.

Sarah has campaigned with others against the proposed expansion of the site, which would result in oil production well into the 2040s, including five drilling cellars, four hydrocarbon production wells, four gas-to-power generators, a process and storage area and tanker loading facility, seven oil tanks, each with a 1,300-barrel capacity and a 37-metre drill rig. 

Sarah has been campaigning against the Horse Hill oil drilling operation since 2013. Her appeal will centre on Surrey Council’s failure to assess the nature and magnitude of the indirect GHG emissions, known as ‘downstream’ emissions which would be caused by the combustion of oil produced by the development. Sarah argues that these indirect emissions are “likely significant effects of the development” which should have been taken into account as part of the EIA, under regulations 4 and 18 and Paragraph 5 Schedule 4 of the Town and Country Planning (EIA) Regulations 2017. 

Sarah’s legal team will also argue that the reasons given by the Council for not requiring that assessment were inadequate (and so unlawful), because (contrary to what Horse Hill Developments Ltd stated in its documents) it had not evidenced what separate pollution control regimes existed, and how they would operate, to regulate those downstream emissions and absolve it of the requirement to take them into account.

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."

The Prime Minister said at COP26 'If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow'. He's right. And getting serious means leaving fossil fuels in the ground."  

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith said:

“As governments around the world re-commit to step up action in response to the climate emergency, the Court of Appeal will consider a hugely important case for the future of the planet. Our client, and the campaigners she represents, make a simple point: Surrey Council cannot lawfully grant planning permission for the production of fossil fuels without first assessing its total climate change impact, including the carbon emitted when the fuels are burnt. Our client hopes that the Court of Appeal will reverse the earlier judgment, and conclude that planning permission ought to be quashed on that basis.”

Friends of the Earth lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said:  

“Granting planning permission for more oil extraction in the middle of a climate crisis without considering its full impact on our planet is ludicrous, and, as our legal team will argue, also unlawful. A number of other countries assess ‘end-use’ emissions as part of their environmental impact assessments, the UK should too.  

It’s astonishing that the UK government is defending this decision in court, only days after the conclusion of COP26. So much for its commitment to building a carbon-free future.  

We’re proud to be backing Sarah’s legal challenge. In the wake of weakness from both the government and Surrey County Council, she is standing up strongly for both her community and our environment.” 

A version of this press release was first published on Leigh Day's website on 15/11/2021.

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