A court case challenging oil drilling projects in the UK has begun today, 21st June 2023, as Sara Finch, a Surrey resident, brings the fight to Surrey County Council. Finch is challenging the legality of four oil wells on the ground of climate change. Her claim is that the development did not consider the climate impacts of burning oil. Should the case prove to be successful, it could have significant impact on fossil fuel projects worldwide.
The exact issues brought to light in this court case are the “downstream emissions.” These are the greenhouse gases produced when the extracted oil is used. Typically, when evaluating the climate impacts of oil drilling in the UK, the actual burning and consumption of the oil is not considered. The only deciding factor is the climate impact of the drilling itself. According to Sara Finch, there would be an estimated 10 million tonnes of carbon emissions over 20 years because of these new oil drills – in comparison, a round trip from London to Brisbane, Australia, emits 4.6 tonnes of carbon emissions.
In a discussion with the BBC News, Sara Finch stated, “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.”
Katie Kauwe, Friends of the Earth lawyer, agreed with Finch’s statement, saying that the emissions from projects like these are “being vastly underestimated”. She goes on to say, “developers are fighting court cases like this because they are very concerned that if decision-makers are confronted with the full carbon impacts of these projects, so with downstream emissions added, then they might think twice about granting them planning permission.”
The underlying argument behind this case is that the oil drills actively go against the government’s lower emissions targets. The UK government has legally committed to lowering all carbon emissions to achieve the net zero target by 2050. This includes no new greenhouse gases to be produced as well. Sara Finch, among other environmental campaigners, claim that these oil drills are in direct contradiction of this target.
Several external groups and companies have been invited to provide evidence within this case, including West Cumbria Mining. They were given permission by the government in 2021 to open the first coal mine in the UK for 40 years. Katie Kauwe commented on this inclusion, stating that “It is obvious that they are worried about the potential implications of the case on their coal mine.”
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