UK activists win landmark ruling on oil well’s ‘inevitable’ emissions

UK Supreme Court judges ruled that Surrey County Council should have considered the downstream emissions of burning oil from new wells before granting it approval to expand

The approval for new oil wells was challenged by former Surrey resident Sarah Finch (centre) on behalf of the Weald Action Group. Getty Images photo via BBC.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on June 25, 2024.

By Christopher Bonasia

Climate advocates are increasingly—and successfully—demanding that courts hold regional decision-makers accountable for ignoring planet-warming pollution.

In the United Kingdom, Supreme Court judges ruled in a three-to-two majority that a local planning authority, Surrey County Council, should have considered the downstream emissions of burning oil from new wells before granting it approval to expand, reports BBC News. The ruling could have implications for future oil and gas projects under consideration.

The case relates to a 2019 council decision to grant the Horse Hill oil well planning permission to expand operations. By a local regulation, such permission is conditional on developers producing an environmental impact assessment that determines “the likely ‘direct and indirect significant effects’ of the project on the environment,” writes Brodies LLP.

The council told the court it thought it had been acting lawfully—as in the past, councils have considered only impacts from well construction, not the final use of oil products.

But this time, the approval was challenged by former Surrey resident Sarah Finch on behalf of the Weald Action Group. The case was rejected by a High Court and then again by an appeals court before being heard by the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice George Leggatt said it was “inevitable” that the oil from the site will produce emissions that are “straightforwardly results of the project,” and so should be considered. Friends of the Earth, which backed the case, estimated that new wells would produce 3.3 million tonnes of crude oil in the next two decades—and more than 10 millions tonnes of carbon dioxide.

“The whole purpose of extracting fossil fuels is to make hydrocarbons available for combustion,” the court judgement stated. “It can therefore be said with virtual certainty that, once oil has been extracted from the ground, the carbon contained within it will sooner or later be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and so will contribute to global warming.”

Meanwhile, in Hawai’i, 13 youth climate activists reached a settlement with the state’s Department of Transportation for violating their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” by being “a major and increasing contributor” to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, reports the Washington Post.

Under the settlement, the Transportation Department will work toward a plan to achieve zero emissions in all ground transportation, and inter island sea and air transportation, by 2045. The terms of the settlement are enforceable in court for the next 21 years until they are achieved.

Navahine v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation is the world’s first youth-led constitutional climate case addressing climate pollution from the transportation sector,” Our Children’s Trust and EarthJustice, which represented the youth activists, wrote in a joint release.

They added that the settlement is groundbreaking, with government defendants deciding “to resolve a constitutional climate case in partnership with youth plaintiffs, committing to comprehensive changes and the systemic decarbonization of a state transportation system to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and fossil fuel dependence.”

Hawai’i is also involved in another climate case: the state is suing major oil companies for misleading the public about the risks of climate change.

And another lawsuit is percolating in Maine, where youth groups and environmental advocates allege the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is not doing enough to cut emissions.


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