The Supreme Court has ruled that it was unlawful for Surrey County Council to grant planning permission for oil production to UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) at its Horse Hill site, near Reigate, as it failed to assess the impact of downstream greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

It rules out UKOG’s plans to drill for up to 3.3 million tonnes of crude oil for 20 years at the site, but also has huge implications for all future UK fossil fuel projects.

The judgement follows a legal challenge brought by Extinction Rebellion climate campaigner and former Surrey resident Sarah Finch, on behalf of the Weald Action Group.

Sarah’s legal fight was part of a wider campaign of opposition by Weald Action Group and supported by local Extinction Rebellion activists. She launched her case in 2019 and argued that, under the correct interpretation of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations 2017. Environmental impact assessments must take into account downstream emissions caused by burning extracted oil. 

The ruling marks the end of the legal campaign which she took to the Supreme Court after three Appeal Court judges were split over the lawfulness of Surrey County Council’s decision.

Sarah Finch (centre) with supporters
Sarah Finch (centre) with supporters (Extinction Rebellion)

Sarah said: “I am absolutely over the moon to have won this important case. The Weald Action Group has always believed it was wrong to allow oil production without assessing its full climate impacts, and the Supreme Court has shown we were right. “This is a welcome step towards a safer, fairer future. The oil and gas companies may act like business-as-usual is still an option. But it will be very hard for planning authorities to permit new fossil fuel developments. In the Weald, the North Sea or anywhere else – when their true climate impact is clear for all to see.”

XR campaigner and Weald Action Group member, James Knapp, from Dorking, added: “Today is a huge result for all Horse Hill campaigners from Weald Action Group, Extinction Rebellion and others.

“A journey of five years of fundraising to get us through the courts to achieve this key result, along with direct action against UKOG, including well site invasions, protest camps, gate lock-ons, slow walks, a rig climb and actions against the refinery.

“But today’s judgement leaves UKOG without planning permission to continue extraction at Horse Hill, and we are celebrating a great win, which will affect a huge number of other campaigns too.”

The ruling has huge implications for all future UK fossil fuel projects
The ruling has huge implications for all future UK fossil fuel projects (Extinction Rebellion )

The ruling makes clear that downstream emissions must be taken into consideration in the environmental assessments of fossil fuel projects, dismissing court rulings which left the issue to planning authorities.

It also emphasised the importance of public participation as a way of increasing the democratic legitimacy of environmental decisions, and serving an educational function. As Lord Leggatt summarised: “You can only care about what you know about.”.

The majority ruling also rejected the argument that resulting GHG emissions are “outwith the control of the site operators with the Court stating that it found that such emissions “are entirely within their control”.

Weald Action Group member
Weald Action Group member (Extinction Rebellion )