The government has been accused of “hypocrisy” over its involvement in a legal battle over new oil drilling in the Surrey Hills, just days after encouraging other nations at the Cop26 summit to end their reliance on fossil fuels.
Campaigners claimed ministers were effectively supporting controversial plans, approved by a Conservative council, to extract oil from four new wells for the next two decades.
A legal challenge launched at the High Court on Tuesday two days after Boris Johnson hailed the climate agreement that was struck in Glasgow on Saturday as “truly historic” and “game-changing”.
But environmental activists told The Independent on Tuesday that Downing Street’s rhetoric on the world stage about lowering carbon emissions was not matched by its actions at home.
As well as the government’s failure to reject the Cambo oil field in the North Sea, they pointed to its alleged backing of the hydrocarbon project in the Surrey Hills.
Until 2019, the owners of the Horse Hill oil site, which is located just 30 miles from Westminster, only had a licence for short-term drilling.
But two years ago Surrey County Council (SCC) granted the site’s owners permission to extract oil from four new wells for a total of 20 years, a decision made shortly after the Tory-run council had declared a climate emergency. This could lead to the release of the equivalent of more than 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the campaign group Friends of the Earth.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) is listed as a party of interest at a two-day Court of Appeal hearing into the validity of the council’s approval process, as the proceedings relate to the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
While the government denies having “any view on the merits of the Horse Hill development,” campaigners say its involvement in the case and failure to prevent further oil extraction is tantamount to support for the oil site.
Sarah Finch, a former councillor from Redhill, Surrey, first brought a case against the council in 2019, arguing that it was wrong not to include off-site emissions caused by the burning of oil in its environmental impact assessment (EIA).
After the High Court ruled last year in favour of the council, Ms Finch and her supporters at the Weald Action Group launched a legal challenge which began in central London on Tuesday.
Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice before proceedings opened, Ms Finch said: “I think it’s wrong legally and morally that they allowed 20 years of oil drilling in Surrey in a climate emergency.
“They didn’t consider the indirect emissions that would result from burning the fuel.”
She added that the government’s involvement in the case directly contradicted its climate message at the Cop26 climate conference. “Boris Johnson was talking last week about the need to transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Three days later, the government is defending 20 years of oil drilling, which will take them right up to the net zero deadline,” she said.
Although Ms Finch remains optimistic about her chances, she said she was, at the very least, glad to have raised awareness about the issue.
Other climate protesters gathered outside court to bring attention to the case, shouting slogans such as “Don’t drill Horse Hill” and “Fossil fuels have got to go”, and carrying signs which read: “Keep it in the ground.”
Lorraine Inglis, a co-founder of Weald Action Group who has campaigned against the Horse Hill oil site since 2013, was among them. “It’s absolute hypocrisy,” she said, referring to the disconnect between the government’s climate pledges in Glasgow and its actions over Horse Hill.
“We’ve got hope that the Court of Appeal will see sense because this planning policy needs to change. And environmental impact assessments (EIAs) need to take into account downstream emissions.”
Katie de Kauwe, a lawyer for Friends of the Earth who is involved in the case, told The Independent that there was “a lot at stake” in court this week.
“It’s incredibly important because the High Court decision is already being quoted by fossil fuel developers on other projects,” she said, citing attempts by West Cumbria Mining Ltd to justify the proposed Whitehaven coal mine on the basis of the Horse Hill ruling.
Ms de Kauwe also noted that it was “rare” for central government to become closely involved in a local planning decision, suggesting that it sent “an incredibly bad signal to the rest of the world after Cop”.
“It’s very hard to understand what [the government] are doing here,” she added.
Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, was also outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday morning. He expressed his solidarity with the campaigners and accused the government of hypocrisy.
“The government can’t one day in Glasgow at the Cop talks want a line in the agreement to phase out fossil fuels globally and then be promoting oil drilling in the Surrey Hills. It’s completely wrong,” he said.
On Monday, the MP for Kingston and Surbiton urged the prime minister to end the City of London’s funding of greenhouse gas projects. “If we acted here, we could turn off the tap for funding for possibly up to 15 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel industry.”
“This is the incoherence of the government: trying to pretend it’s leading globally, whereas in its own backyard - be it Surrey or the City of London - it’s failing to take action to stop fossil fuel exploration,” Mr Davey said.
Paul Chandler, a Green Party councillor for Reigate, Surrey, agreed. “We have a commitment from the borough, the county, the government, the globe to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, and we’re talking about drilling for more. It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Catherine Baart, a Green Party council councillor in Surrey, also travelled to London to protest against the expansion of the Horse Hill oil site.
She urged investors bankrolling the plans to look elsewhere. She added: “If I was investing, I wouldn’t be investing in Horse Hill. I’d put my money into green investment because that’s where I think people will make their money. This is a dead end.”
UK Oil and Gas PLC, the majority stakeholder in the Horse Hill site, and Surrey County Council both declined to respond, saying it would “not be appropriate for us to comment at this stage”.
A DLUHC spokesperson said: “The department’s role in this appeal is in no way an expression of any view on the merits of the Horse Hill development, and concerns only the interpretation of regulations. It would be inappropriate to comment further on ongoing litigation.”
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