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Major oil projects must calculate their full climate impacts

Major oil projects must calculate their full climate impacts
Major oil projects must calculate their full climate impacts

 


1 day ago

By Justin Rowlatt, Climate Editor Esme Stallard, Climate and Science Correspondent, BBC News

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Sarah Finch (centre) began her legal battle against Surrey County Council five years ago.

The Supreme Court has ruled that local councils must consider the full climate impact of burning oil from new wells. This is a landmark decision that could call into question future oil and gas projects in the UK.

There has always been an assumption under planning law that only the impacts resulting from the construction of a well should be considered and not the use of the final petroleum product.

A lawsuit brought against Surrey County Council by Sarah Finch on behalf of activists could threaten new fossil fuel projects in the UK.

The council said it believed it had followed planning laws at the time.

A Supreme Court judge has not ruled that Surrey County Council must reject proposals for a new well, but rather must consider downstream discharge.

This precedent of considering emissions from products like oil won't stop new drilling, but it's something companies should consider when considering new projects.

“I am very pleased to have won this important case.” Sarah Finch told her supporters:

Today's ruling relates to the Horse Hill oil well in Surrey. The site was granted planning permission to expand its operations in 2019, a decision that was appealed by Ms Finch on behalf of the Weald Action Group.

Finch's lawyers said that as part of its environmental impact assessment, the council should have taken into account greenhouse gas emissions from the construction of the well, as well as the burning of the oil used at the time (downstream emissions).

Supreme Court justices agreed by a 3-2 majority.

Summarizing the case, Lord Leggatt said that the burning of oil on site was inevitable and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions were a consequence of the project that had to be taken into account.

Horse Hill's six wells are expected to produce 3.3 million tonnes of crude oil over the next 20 years. Environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth estimates that burning oil produces more than 10 million tonnes of CO2.

Stephen Sanderson, CEO of UK Oil and Gas plc, which led the Horse Hill project, said the court's ruling was “disconcerting”.

But he added: “Over the past few years, the company’s focus has shifted firmly from oil and gas to hydrogen storage.”

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The test case could have implications for new oil and gas projects in the North Sea.

UK Oil and Gas plc will now work with Surrey County Council to amend the planning application and said future production would fall below levels requiring an environmental assessment.

Campaigners claim the ruling could also affect ongoing legal challenges to new projects in the UK, including the proposed Rosebank oilfield and Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria.

“Today’s landmark ruling is a major blow to fossil fuel lobbyists,” the Weald Action Group said.

They added: “The UK is already dangerously on track to meet its legally binding carbon reduction targets and international commitments to cut emissions by two-thirds by 2030.”

They say the ruling could have implications overseas because British law on environmental assessments is partly based on European law.

Finch's victory capped a five-year legal battle on behalf of local residents who received support from environmental activists Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Her objection to the project was initially rejected by the High Court, but when it went to the Court of Appeal in 2021, the judges handed down a split decision and Ms Finch took the case to the Supreme Court last year.

A Supreme Court judge has not ruled that Surrey County Council must reject proposals for a new well, but has ruled that downstream discharge must be taken into account.

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