How a fight against oil drilling in Surrey made legal history

UK oil and gas projects must now take into account 'downstream' emissions.
Sarah Finch

I’m still walking on air having won a big victory in the Supreme Court last month. A win that will change the future of fossil fuel production.

It’s been described as a ‘landmark’, ‘watershed’ and ‘tide-turning’ judgment. What started as a campaign against one oil development in Surrey has now made it harder for new fossil fuels to be produced anywhere in the UK.

This incredible result was the culmination of many years of campaigning at Horse Hill in Surrey. Local residents and activists from the wider anti-fracking and climate movements had been fighting oil exploration and flow testing at Horse Hill and across the region for several years.

In 2018, oil company Horse Hill Developments Ltd applied for permission for four new oil wells and 20 years of oil production. In the months before Surrey county council’s planning committee made its  decision, the climate movement quickly became mainstream, and the authority itself  even declared a ‘Climate Emergency’.

Horse Hill. Image: Derek Harper/Geograph.

So it came as a real shock to many to discover that the emissions from burning the fuel had been explicitly excluded from the council’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the scheme, and a real disappointment when it was granted. The application allowed the production of up to 3.3 million tonnes of crude oil over 20 years – oil that would inevitably be burned, throwing more than 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and heating the planet.

Campaigners from the Weald Action Group, a regional umbrella group sharing skills and knowledge to oppose oil and gas wells in the region, decided to contest the council’s decision. Through the judicial review process, we asked the courts to consider whether the council had followed the law correctly. Our argument was that the emissions from burning the oil (‘scope 3 emissions’) should have been part of the EIA because they were an inevitable result of extraction and would inevitably affect the climate.

Despite losing our case in the High Court and the Court of Appeal, the case was considered significant enough to be heard in the UK’s highest court. That hearing took place on Midsummer’s Day in 2023 and, a year later, the Supreme Court handed down its judgment.

They agreed with us.      

The Supreme Court found that the council had acted unlawfully by giving planning permission for oil production at Horse Hill. Image: Unsplash.

The 3–2 majority judgment found that the council had acted unlawfully by giving planning permission for oil production at Horse Hill without considering the inevitable climate impacts of combustion, just as we’d said all along. “Many people would see this as a five-year struggle for a statement of the obvious”, Channel 4 observed.

The win is great news for the community at Horse Hill and for other communities fighting fossil fuel developments. Planning authorities will now have to consider the full climate impacts of all relevant fossil fuel projects. The judgment should help legal challenges to already approved projects including the Whitehaven coalmine (the High Court hearing for that takes place on 16-18th July), Rosebank and Jackdaw North Sea Oil projects, and onshore oil in Biscathorpe, Lincolnshire. If Horse Hill is unlawful, so are they.

We hope this judgment will empower our next government to strengthen commitments to no new oil and gas, and to influence other countries with similar laws on EIA.    

So what are the lessons for other campaigners?

Firstly, persevere! When we kept getting knocked back we considered giving up. But we kept going and exceeded our own expectations.  

Once in a while, thanks to people power, climate campaigners get a win. Image: Weald Action Group.

But remember what worked for us might not work for every campaign. The legal route is risky, slow and very expensive. In the Weald Action Group, we have people with some legal knowledge, some great fundraisers, and a large network including concerned and generous locals. This meant we were able to raise £65,000 for legal costs, and we only made it to the Supreme Court with funding from Law for Change.

The legal system worked in our favour this time, but we are very aware of how the law can also be used to stifle activism. Weald Action Group campaigners have also been in the courts fighting injunctions used by developers to criminalise protest at their sites.

Secondly: Think global, act local. I happened to have an oil production site on my doorstep. There are plenty of other polluting projects – from airports and road-building to military installations and industrial agriculture – and they all need fighting. These projects tend to be locally undesirable too, and it can be strategically useful to consider the issues that matter most to local people. In our case, there was a broad range of opposition to Horse Hill before the climate issue really took off, including the industrialisation of the countryside and local environmental risks.

Being a climate campaigner can feel like wading through treacle (or an oil spill) sometimes. But once in a while, thanks to people power, you get a win that works better than you ever expected!

Sarah Finch is a freelance editor, a climate campaigner and a member of the Weald Action Group.

Feature image: Weald Action Group.

Sarah Finch

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