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Case update 20 July 2023

Court upholds Government approval of fossil fuel drilling scheme

We are incredibly disappointed that the High Court has ruled against a legal challenge we are supporting to force the Government to reconsider its approval of a gas exploration scheme on the edge of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.


Exploiting our natural landscape for fossil fuels should be a thing of the past. This morning’s judgment is another very concerning step backwards for our vital efforts to reach net zero and comes at a time when record temperatures are engulfing our European neighbours.

We have been proud to support campaigners from Protect Dunsfold in their tenacious efforts to stop UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) from rolling their drilling rigs through their village to do irreparable damage to the local landscape. 

However, with the doors left open to UKOG to go ahead with its gas drilling project, we could now see huge impacts on local wildlife and businesses.

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This scheme should never have been approved by the Government in the first place. But in June 2022, the Secretary of State for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities intervened to overrule two previous rejections of UKOG’s planning application by Surrey County Council.

We have been backing Protect Dunsfold’s legal challenge against the Government’s decision. At a High Court hearing last month, Estelle Dehon KC, representing the campaign group, argued that the Secretary of State’s decision to run roughshod over local democracy and give the green light to exploratory drilling in Dunsfold was unlawful.

On the same day that he gave the Dunsfold drilling site the go-ahead, he refused permission for a comparable site in Ellesmere Port. In this case, greenhouse gas emissions were cited as the most significant factor against granting permission in Ellesmere Port, with the Secretary of State asserting that “every tonne of carbon contributes to climate change”. But when it came to the Dunsfold site, which would generate higher emissions, he reached a different decision. 

The drilling site is also on the edge of the Surrey Hills AONB. In the High Court, Estelle Dehon KC also argued that the Secretary of State had not complied with national policy requiring him to give “great weight” to conserving and enhancing landscape and scenic beauty as the starting point in his decision.

With so much at stake and with so many questions over the logic of the Secretary of State’s decision, we are hugely disappointed that the High Court ruled against these legal grounds.

We are now getting advice on the possibility of supporting an appeal by Protect Dunsfold and we will provide an update as soon as we are able to.

Sarah Godwin of Protect Dunsfold Ltd said:

“Protect Dunsfold is deeply disappointed that the Judicial Review judgment handed down today has gone against us. It seems incredible that within the current context of extreme weather conditions throughout the Northern Hemisphere, planning policy still supports such speculative and unnecessary onshore oil and gas exploration. The Court’s decision shows that the Government needs to radically overhaul national planning policy to redress the balance so that the planning authorities always have to take the climate and environmental impact of such proposals into account.

“We will continue to work to change Government policies, and fight for recognition of the very real and imminent threat to our environment, businesses and everyday life related to the continued search for fossil fuels.”

Leigh Day solicitor, Ricardo Gama, said:

“Our clients are disappointed that the court has dismissed their claim for judicial review.

“They feel that there is an important legal principle at stake, which is whether local authorities and the Secretary of State can ignore greenhouse gas emissions when weighing up the public benefits of an exploratory drilling proposal such as this, in a context where greenhouse gas emissions were a reason for refusing a very similar development at Ellesmere Port.

“Our clients are considering an appeal.”