Climate campaigners take oil drilling case to the Supreme Court

Banner held by Vicki Elcoate on the left and Sarah Finch on the right

Two women from the South West were among a group of campaigners at the Supreme Court last month fighting to ensure that fossil fuel developments are not given planning permission without a proper assessment of their climate impacts. Sarah Finch, from Exeter, fronted the case on behalf of a network of campaigners called the Weald Action Group.  

The case began in a campaign against an onshore oil site at Horse Hill in Surrey – but has national significance. If the Supreme Court decides in Sarah’s favour, planning authorities across the UK will be obliged to consider greenhouse gas emissions from the eventual use of fossil fuels when deciding on applications for new coal mines and oil wells, not just those that would be emitted during the production process.

This would make it much more difficult for future developments to get planning permission, and could lead to the review of already permitted projects. Developments that could be affected include the proposed new coal mine in Cumbria – approved by the Government in 2022 but subject to challenge by campaigners – and Rosebank, the biggest undeveloped oil field in the North Sea, which could get Government approval imminently.

Sarah’s solicitor, Rowan Smith of Leigh Day, said:

“It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this case.”

A three-year legal fight

The Supreme Court hearing was the culmination of a three-year legal fight: Sarah has taken the case through the High Court and the Court of Appeal. And it is part of a decade of campaigning against the oil development, which has seen various tactics deployed including public meetings and letter-writing to the Council, and direct action such as ‘slow walking’ and lock-ons at the gates of the site.

Sarah explains

“The oil site has been there since 2014. In 2018, the oil company applied for planning permission to drill four new wells and produce oil for 20 years – well past the point when we need to have stopped using oil altogether.”

At the time, Sarah lived a few miles from the site (she moved to Devon in 2021). She and many others objected to these plans, submitting detailed representations covering the climate and other impacts of the development. But when the case came up for decision, Sarah felt their objections were not properly represented to the Planning Committee. The application was approved.

The Weald Action Group couldn’t accept a decision that was made in defiance of the evidence of its potential impact on the climate. One of their members, Vicki Elcoate (now living in Lyme Regis), had previously worked for the UK Environmental Law Association and felt that there might be grounds for a judicial review. After taking legal advice, this is what they did and Sarah volunteered to front the case.

After initial deliberations – and free consultations with lawyers – the challenge was whittled down to one key point: the failure by Surrey County Council to require all the emissions arising from their decision to be included in the Environmental Impact Assessment.

The lawyers agreed to cap their fees. Even so, the group had to raise considerable funds – some £35,000 for the High Court stage and £30,000 for the Court of Appeal. The funds were raised from many sources – crowdfunders, sponsored events, an art sale and an auction, and donations from individuals and local organisations. A new funder called Law for Change stepped in to cover the costs of the Supreme Court stage.

At the Supreme Court on 21 June, supporters gathered outside to show support before the hearing started. As the courtroom was full, they spilled into another court to watch the proceedings on a screen. Sarah says: “It was exciting and vindicating to have our case heard by five judges. The questions they asked showed they understood the points we were making. The press interest was fantastic, so we definitely raised awareness of the problem of planning practice being out of step with climate policy.”

The judgment is not expected for some months.

The Horse Hill case is one of hundreds of climate cases going through courts around the world. A recent report found that 1,557 legal cases on climate have been filed since 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement. 190 were filed in the last 12 months.

However using the law is expensive and slow, and results are not guaranteed. And traditional peaceful methods of campaigning often fail to attract attention. So it’s no wonder that many activists are choosing to break the law instead of using it.

What impact will the case have?

Vicki said:

“If we win, the outcome will mean planning authorities make better decisions. For example in Dorset an oil company wants to apply to reactivate a dormant oil site at Waddock Cross and has said it’s planning a bigger application later to make this one of the biggest onshore oil sites in the country. Councillors and officers need all the information available to make that decision – especially about the climate impacts of the proposal which are currently being disregarded”. 

Sarah concludes:

“If we win, it will be a huge victory for the climate. If we don’t, we have raised awareness of a crucial issue and educated a lot of judges. The campaign will continue in other ways. We definitely would not let it rest here. One of the key messages of the Climate Change Committee’s 2023 Progress Report to Parliament published last week is that expansion of fossil fuel production is not in line with Net Zero. This follows similar statements by the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The fossil fuel age has to end if we are to have a future. Whether it is my case or a different one, I do believe that ultimately we will win.” 

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