Supreme Court grants permission to appeal in legal battle over new oil drilling in Surrey Hills

The Supreme Court will consider whether emissions from the downstream use of fossil fuels should be the subject of environmental impact assessment after it granted permission to appeal in a controversial case over new oil drilling near the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Landscape view of the Surrey Hills Photograph: Simon Bradfield/Getty Images

The case concerns planning permission granted for Horse Hill Developments to expand its operation near Gatwick Airport. The application includes plans to retain the two existing wells and also expand by drilling four new wells. 

READ MORE: Government accused of ‘hypocrisy’ over Surrey Hills oil drilling

The claimant, Sarah Finch, who is supported by local campaign network Weald Action Group, called for a judicial review of this planning permission back in 2019 and has taken the case all the way through to the levels of the UK justice system.

The claim was dismissed in December 2020 at  the High Court, and in February this year it was rejected at the Court of Appeal by a 2-1 majority. 

Finch claimed that it was unlawful for the mineral planning authority, Surrey, not to include the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from eventually using the oil in the Environmental Impact assessment.

The one judge who sided with Finch in the Court of Appeal ruling, Lord Justice Moylan, held that the council had acted unlawfully in failing to provide cogent reasons for not requiring ‘scope 3’ emissions, meaning emissions that result from assets not owned or controlled by the organisation in question, in the environmental statement.

READ MORE: Why a ruling upholding approval for an oil well extension fails to rule out future scope for carbon emissions in EIAs

The Supreme Court granted permission to appeal on Tuesday, August 9, in R (Finch) v  Surrey County Council & Others. The case raises the important question of whether the effects of using the oil extracted, that could happen later down the line, should be part of the Environmental Impact Assessment in circumstances where the permissions are for extraction only. 

This case is echoed in the controversial decision in June this year taken by the minister of housing at the time, Stuart Andrew, to approve a gas drilling project in the Surrey Hills, despite accepting in his report that “there are significant harms to the character and appearance of the landscape from the proposal”. 

The proposal from UK Oil and Gas Authority to construct and operate a non-fracking gas well for three years, near Dunsfold, close to the boundary of the AONB, was initially rejected by Surrey County Council. However, a subsequent public inquiry led by the planning inspectorate later recommended it should go ahead. 

READ MORE: ‘Absurd’: Minister approves gas drilling on edge of Surrey Hills AONB

The ministerial decision letter stated that “the benefits of the gas exploration/appraisal phase [are afforded] great weight” than adverse environmental impacts. 

Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s UK policy director, said: “With this decision the government is completely undermining local democracy, the planning laws that are supposed to protect our designated landscapes, and the climate crisis in one fell swoop.”

Update as of August 15, 2022: On the news the case would be going to Supreme Court, Sarah Finch said she felt 'vindicated'. 

Speaking to independent news outlet DrillOrDrop, she said: "I know my case could be seen as just a little local planning dispute. But the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and it deals with matters which are of public and constitutional importance.

“I think the fact that it has agreed to hear the case shows that it knows the issue needs to be resolved one way or another.”

Sarah Finch will be represented by Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith.