Landmark Supreme Court judgement on assessing fossil fuel projects

On 20th June, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that the ‘inevitable’ future climate impact of burning coal, oil and gas must be taken into account when deciding whether to approve fossil fuel projects, not just the emissions at the extraction site. The case was brought by Sarah Finch and Weald Action Group, challenging  Surrey county council’s decision to extend planning permission for an oil drilling well at Horse Hill, on the Weald. ‘Planning authorities say that they don’t need to consider the climate impacts of the actual burning of the oil – just from the drilling. It’s like saying a chocolate cake is low calorie as long as you don’t eat it,’ said Sarah.

The Supreme Court noted that the UK law governing environmental impact assessments did not impose a geographical limit on impacts and there is ‘no justification for limiting the scope of the assessment to effects … at or near the site of the project.’

The International Energy Agency said three years ago that no new oil and gas exploration should take place if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5C (2.7F) above pre-industrial temperatures.

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision that the downstream impacts of fossil fuel projects must be adequately considered has implications for lawsuits against the Rosebank and Jackdaw oil and gas fields in the North Sea. It has also given a boost to other domestic lawsuits, including the application to open a new coal mine at Whitehaven in Cumbria, which received government approval in December 2022.

The mine’s supporters claimed it would be “climate neutral”.  This point, amongst other claims, including that the coal is needed to replace UK imports (its sulphur content is in fact too high) and that jobs will be created for local residents, will be challenged by South Lakes Action on Climate Change at the Royal Courts of Justice on 16th to 18th July.   Read more about the case here.

people stand on a lawn and hold a banner saying 'No time for a coal mine'.

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