UK Supreme Court rules Council assessment for oil well development should include a full climate impact consideration 

On 20 June 2024, the Supreme Court in the UK held that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) carried out by the County Council of Surrey for an oil well development should have considered the effects on climate of the burning of the oil that the wells contain. An application for planning permission was made to retain and expand upon an existing well site in Horley, to add four wells to the existing two, and extract hydrocarbons from these six wells for commercial production. The proposed project would involve the extraction of oil for over 20 years, producing an estimated quantity of around 3.3 million tonnes of oil. In objecting to this proposal, an environmental campaigner brought the case forward, arguing that the proposal should account for the impact of the emissions from the extracted oil when used.  

The EIA carried out by the Council did not provide information to the public about the combustion emissions linked to the proposal and the Council did not consider these when making the decision to grant approval of the development. At question in the case was whether the refined oil produced from the well extractions, when burned as a fuel, should be part of the EIA before approval of the development. The Supreme Court considered whether the climate effect of the refined oil burned was an effect of the project from climate, and thus, whether the restriction of the breadth of the EIA by the Council was lawful.  

In the majority judgement by Lord Leggatt, the judge noted the inevitability of the combustion of the oil extracted from the well and its production of greenhouse gas emissions, and stated that the combustion being an effect of the proposed development ‘seems to me plain that they are.’ Thus, it was held that the environmental effects of the combustion emissions from the project should have been part of the Council’s EIA. As a result of this decision, local councils that are making decisions on proposed planning developments in the UK in the future must take into account the wider impact on the environment of oil and gas projects.  

Commenting on the decision of the Supreme Court, the Director of the Law Division at the United Nations Environment Programme, Patricia Kameria-Mbote said:  

“[The ruling] ensures that the true environmental cost of fossil fuel projects is considered.” 

Click here to read the judgement in R v Surrey County Council and others. 



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