North Sea oil and gas drilling 'threatened' after landmark Supreme Court ruling

The ruling could have a drastic impact on new licences.

A landmark fossil fuels ruling in the Supreme Court could have huge ramifications for new North Sea drilling licences, with an Edinburgh University academic warning all new developments could now face fresh legal challenges.

Judges on Thursday ruled that emissions created by burning fossil fuels needed to be considered when granting planning permission for new drilling sites.

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The ruling came after Sarah Finch, on behalf of Weald Action Group, had challenged Surrey County Council’s decision to allow the expansion of an oil well site at Horse Hill, near Horley in Surrey, in 2019.

Police officers remove a climate activist protesting against the Rosebank oil field project in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, outside the InterContinental London Park Lane in London in October. Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty ImagesPolice officers remove a climate activist protesting against the Rosebank oil field project in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, outside the InterContinental London Park Lane in London in October. Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images
Police officers remove a climate activist protesting against the Rosebank oil field project in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, outside the InterContinental London Park Lane in London in October. Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Stuart Haszeldine, professor of geology at Edinburgh University, described the ruling as a “really fundamental judgment” that would have a “worldwide impact”, not just on the North Sea.

“What this ruling says is that in a development which involves fossil fuels, then the emissions from those fossil fuels should be considered by the planning authority, whether local or national,” he said. “Previously, emissions for oil and gas extraction were not considered. That means in the conversation about licensing future oil and gas fields offshore, anything that is still to get an environmental impact assessment, that impact has to include the impact of all the carbon emissions.”

Prof Haszeldine added: “Any company going forward has to do this environmental impact assessment, which opens that company open to litigation, and a very huge commercial risk for oil and gas companies to open up new licences. This now changes the legal rules. They can still go ahead, and companies can try and bid for a license, but they will be taken to a court if they proceed. They can’t just pretend theirs is a special development. This will have a worldwide impact, because it’s the most senior court, and under the European environmental regulations, so will impact Europe.”

Environmentalists argued developments such as the Rosebank field north-west of Shetland, should also not “get the go ahead now”.

Environmental campaigner Sarah Finch  (centre) outside the Supreme Court in London after justices ruled that emissions generated from burning fuel should be considered when granting planning permission for oil sites.Environmental campaigner Sarah Finch  (centre) outside the Supreme Court in London after justices ruled that emissions generated from burning fuel should be considered when granting planning permission for oil sites.
Environmental campaigner Sarah Finch (centre) outside the Supreme Court in London after justices ruled that emissions generated from burning fuel should be considered when granting planning permission for oil sites.

Ms Finch argued the environmental impact assessment carried out before planning permission was granted, which only took into account the impact of extracting the oil, should have taken into account the “downstream” emissions produced when the oil was burned.

She challenged an earlier Court of Appeal ruling dismissing her case, having also lost a legal battle in the High Court. Supreme Court justices subsequently ruled three to two in favour of allowing her appeal and quashed the decision to grant planning permission for the site.

In his judgment, Lord Leggatt said “it seems to me plain” that emissions created by burning oil extracted at the site “are effects of the project”, and as a result “it follows that the council’s decision was unlawful”.

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In a ruling backed by Lord Kitchin and Lady Rose, he said: “The reasons accepted by the council for excluding the combustion emissions from consideration and assessing only direct greenhouse gas emissions from within the well site boundary are therefore demonstrably flawed.” He continued: “In my view, there was no basis on which the council could reasonably decide that it was unnecessary to assess the combustion emissions.”

Liam McArthur poses for photographs and interviews as he has today published his Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Liam McArthur poses for photographs and interviews as he has today published his Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Liam McArthur poses for photographs and interviews as he has today published his Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The result raises leaves UK fossil fuels at risk, with the judgement setting a potential precedent that emissions now needing to be considered in planning.

Speaking after the result, Scottish Liberal Democrat climate crisis spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP called for all new oil and gas proposals to face stringent checks.

He told The Scotsman: “Today’s decision will validate the reasonable and pragmatic case that many, including my own party, have been making for some time. If we are to achieve net zero by 2045, it is only right that we ensure any new proposal for oil and gas is assessed against a rigorous climate checkpoint.

“The reality is that the North Sea basin is winding down – its finite resources are baked into its geology. If we are still stuck on fossil fuels in the decades to come, we will be importing them.”

Scottish Green co-leader and former minister Lorna Slater MSP called the court ruling an “important ruling and a vital precedent.”

She said: "The reality is that there is no amount of new oil and gas drilling that is compatible with the climate action that we badly need to take. At heart is is a question of what inheritance we want to leave to future generations. The UN Secretary General has said that we only have five years left to avert climate breakdown. Every day spent exploring new fossil fuel projects is only making the crisis worse.

"All governments urgently need to ramp up investment in clean, green energy and the renewable industries of the future and ensure a just transition that works for our climate and our communities."

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Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey called the judgement a win for “local people” who stood up to “greedy oil barons”. He said: "The Surrey Hills and all Protected landscapes must be kept safe from greedy oil barons who show complete disregard for our national environment.”

There was also universal celebration from activist groups and charities, who claimed the verdict fundamentally changed how governments could assess new licences.

Mel Evans, climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK, suggested the result put governments on notice.

They said: “This is a huge win for the climate. The courts have finally recognised that the Government can’t ignore emissions released by burning fossil fuels when granting drilling licences.

“Governments will have to confront what energy experts have long been saying – new oil and gas developments are totally incompatible with the UK’s climat”e commitments. We now need robust government action to bring the UK’s oil and gas sector in line with our climate commitments and properly support affected workers into good, secure jobs in the renewables sector.

The decision was also welcomed by Tessa Khan, a climate lawyer and executive director at Uplift, a group campaigning for a rapid and fair transition away from oil and gas production.

She said: "This is a huge win in the fight for a liveable climate. Today’s judgment means that the days of waving through oil and gas projects without taking into account their full impact on our planet are over.

“Government can no longer keep repeating that the emissions from burning oil reserves don’t count. If sites like Horse Hill are deemed unlawful on this basis, other oil and gas projects should be too, including the huge Rosebank field off the coast of Shetland, which will emit more CO2 than the world’s 28 low-income countries combined.”

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Fatima Ibrahim, co-director of campaign group Green New Deal Rising, said: "Science tells us that we're in the final years to avert catastrophic climate change, and leaving fossil fuels in the ground is the bare minimum if we're going to succeed in changing course. This Supreme Court ruling is a massive victory for everyone who wants a liveable future.

"Now that this ruling has been made, it's time that our politicians opened their eyes to the scale of the changes that we need to make and stopped burying their heads in the sand.”

The ruing also prompted an angry clash at First Minister’s Questions, where Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross accused John Swinney of “trying to mislead the public about the SNP’s stance on oil and gas”.

He said: “The SNP have opposed the oil and gas industry at every turn. Whenever a new development is proposed in the North Sea, the SNP oppose it.

“When Rosebank was approved, when Cambo was approved, when any new development is approved – the SNP are against it.

“In recent years, they have not supported any new fields – not one.”Responding, the First Minister said: “We’ve got a rational and considered process that we’ve argued for, which is that we should have, that every individual application should be subject to a climate compatibility assessment because there is a journey that we have to make as a country to reach net zero.

“That is inescapable and what is clear from the position taken by the Prime Minister, supported by Douglas Ross and the Conservatives, is that they don’t care about the journey on climate. They’re not interested in the crisis that we face and the climate emergency.”

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