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Climate Activist Takes Surrey Oil Wells Battle to Court of Appeal

Published on: 15 Nov, 2021
Updated on: 18 Nov, 2021

Sarah Finch at Horse Hill rally November 5, 2021. Image: Denise Laura Baker

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Demonstrators are expected outside the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow (November 16) as a legal challenge is made against planning consent for oil drilling in Surrey.

Climate campaigner Sarah Finch last year fought Surrey County Council’s decision to allow two decades of oil production at Horse Hill near Horley, south of Redhill, but a High Court judge did not agree with her and found the authority acted lawfully and rationally.

The Royal Courts of Justice in London

In a hearing listed for November 16 and 17, Ms Finch will ask the Court of Appeal to consider whether the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations used as part of the planning authority’s decision-making process should in fact take into account greenhouse gas emissions arising when the extracted oil is later burned.

Ms Finch, 57, of Redhill, said she thinks the case shows that the county council’s “climate policy is out of sync with planning policy”.

She said: “It seems strange hearing Boris Johnson at COP26 talking about the need to get serious today on climate change, but then you’ve got the council going to court to defend the use of oil, it’s a real mismatch.”

She said she thought taxpayers’ money should not be spent fighting a decision she believes to be morally wrong.

Surrey County Council said the Horse Hill application was “in accordance with the development plan and policies laid down by government”.

An earlier protest at Horse Hill. Photo: Weald Action Group website.

Ms Finch, supported by Weald Action Group, said almost £50,000 had been pledged for her legal costs through crowdfunding.

She was “very daunted with the prospect” of crowdfunding at first but “it turned out not to be a problem at all” thanks to “a huge amount of support” in the community.

Money raised included more than £5,000 from 71-year-old Dorking grandmother Pat Smith, who walked more than 100 miles in a week on a route past sites where planning permission has been sought for oil drilling, including Horse Hill and Dunsfold.

Rowan Smith, Leigh Day solicitor who will represent Ms Finch, 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.”

In December Mr Justice David Holgate concluded that, under the EIA regulations, when a council is considering an application to extract oil, it does not legally have to assess the climate impact of greenhouse gases emitted on combustion of the oil.

But Lord Justice Kim Lewison said in March there were compelling reasons for the appeal to be heard and that the EIA argument had “far-reaching ramifications”.

Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer for Friends of the Earth who is supporting the legal challenge, said: “Allowing oil drilling to go ahead at Horse Hill will make it harder for the UK to play its part in averting catastrophic climate change and raises further doubts on the UK government’s commitment to ending our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Horse Hill Developments was given planning permission in September 2019 for the Horse Hill site near Gatwick Airport, for the retention and extension of a well site and the drilling of four new wells for the production of hydrocarbons.

Its parent company UKOG said oil remains necessary during and post-transition, in order to manufacture such materials as wind turbine blades and electric vehicles, and said it was preferable this should come from domestic sources.

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