The full climate impacts of proposed new or extended fossil fuel projects are not routinely considered when planning permission is sought, despite the deepening climate crisis and the UK’s commitment to net zero.
Instead, planning authorities frequently just consider the climate impact caused by the process of getting the fossil fuels out of the ground – and not the emissions that are created when the gas, oil or coal is eventually – and inevitably – burnt. Yet that is when the vast majority of the emissions are produced.
The issue of failure to account for these ‘downstream’ or ‘scope 3’ emissions in the environmental impact assessment is currently the subject of an appeal in the Supreme Court.
Sarah Finch is challenging Surrey County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for oil drilling at Horse Hill, near Gatwick airport, without taking into account the downstream emissions. The UK government has chosen to participate in the appeal and is defending the approval of the project. A decision is expected later this year.
If Ms Finch wins her case, it could have a profound impact on all new UK fossil fuel developments, both onshore and offshore.
She said: “The biggest climate impact from gas, coal and oil production occurs when the fuel is eventually burned. It’s outrageous that this is ignored when decisions are made over whether to allow new and expanded fossil fuel projects.
“That’s what my appeal over oil production at Horse Hill is about – and I hope the Supreme Court will confirm that no fossil fuel production – on or offshore – should be allowed without consideration of its full climate impact.”
Another significant development where the climate impact caused by burning the extracted fossil fuel was not considered is the controversial new coal mine planned for Cumbria, which the government approved last year.
The decision is facing a legal challenge by Friends of the Earth and South Lakes Action on Climate Change. The High Court has agreed to a ‘rolled-up’ hearing, but the court says it will wait for the outcome of the Horse Hill legal challenge before setting a date – highlighting the critical importance of Sarah Finch’s challenge.
Friends of the Earth – along with ClientEarth and Good Law Project – are also taking legal action against the government over its plans for tackling climate change and meeting the country’s legally-binding carbon emissions targets.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from Friends of the Earth.