The Memo: Supreme Court rules in favour of environmental activists over oil well plans

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Supreme Court rules in favour of environmental activists over oil well plans

Erin Bradbury - 24 June 2024

What started as a case by campaigner Sarah Finch against the local council has transformed into a landmark ruling. Just this month, the Supreme Court ruled that planners must look at the impact of emissions prior to granting approval for oil wells. Back in 2019, Surrey County Council granted planning permission to expand a drilling project at Horse Hill which, according to environmental organisation Friends of the Earth’s estimations, will produce 3.3 million tonnes of crude oil over the next 20 years. In turn, it will burn over 10 million tonnes of CO2, otherwise known as downstream greenhouse gas (GHG) emissionsAs Finch and the Weald Action Group’s case argued, the council should’ve considered this.  

So, up until this rulingthe planning laws in place meant – or at least led to the assumptionthat impacts from well construction should be considered, rather than the final use of products (which here would be the outcomes of burning crude oil). However, the Supreme Court has flipped the script, ruling that the council should’ve taken the final use into account. This means that a precedent has been set in which emissions must be considered before undertaking new projects. To clarify, this doesn’t stop new drilling from occurring. However, this is a win for environmental campaigners as it might now be more difficult for new energy developments to get approval. In response to the win, Weald Action Group stated: Today’s groundbreaking ruling is a heavy blow for fossil fuel lobbyists [the UK is already veering dangerously off track for meeting its legally binding carbon reduction targets, and its international pledge to reduce emissions by two-thirds by 2030.” 

We’re yet to see the effects of this ruling, but many are already expecting to see its impacts on North Sea drilling. Consequently, energy corporations will be exposed to further commercial risk and litigation when they open new licenses. Moreover, as an established court under European environmental regulationsexperts predict that this will have a worldwide impact.