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High Court hearing to challenge decision to allow new oil production in Lincolnshire Wolds AONB

A planning inspector’s decision to allow an oil drilling operation in the Lincolnshire Wolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) will be challenged in the High Court.

Posted on 04 March 2024

Mathilda Dennis, who has been campaigning against oil exploration and its expansion with SOS Biscathorpe since 2014, has been granted permission for a statutory review hearing before a judge.

The Judge who examined Mathilda’s legal application for a court hearing to challenge the lawfulness of the inspector’s decision said all of the grounds she put forward are arguable. 

Permission was first granted to drill for oil at Biscathorpe in 2014 and exploratory drilling undertaken in 2018 failed to locate the target reserve. The current application for further exploratory drilling and 15 years of production should oil be found was refused by Lincolnshire County Council in 2021. The applicant, Egdon Resources UK Ltd (now owned by US-based group Heyco Energy), appealed against that decision which was then overturned by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in November 2023. 

SOS Biscathorpe, acting through Mathilda, represented by the environment team at law firm Leigh Day, says the impact on the landscape and the climate crisis outweigh any claims that the Biscathorpe site’s uncertain and negligible oil output would contribute to national energy security.  

Her grounds for legal challenge, accepted as arguable, are:

  • the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) guidance about major development in AONBs, which states that permission should be refused unless there are exceptional circumstances and the development is in the public interest, has been misinterpreted 
  • there has been an error of law in not considering alternative proposals, including other means of meeting UK energy demands   
  • there has been a breach of the Environmental Impact Regulations 2017 by failing to consider whether the inevitable downstream greenhouse gas emissions that will arise from burning the oil were relevant to determining the environmental impact of the project 
  • the great weight attached to the development’s small and uncertain contribution to national energy security is irrational 
  • there is no evidence for an irrational assertion about the impact of the development on oil output in other countries 

The grounds will be outlined in detail when the court hearing takes place later in 2024. The case has been stayed pending an imminent Supreme Court decision which also addresses the need to assess downstream greenhouse gas emissions.  

The Secretary of State and Egdon Resources will have to defend the decision and explain why they believe it was lawful. A judge will then consider the arguments and give a judgment, which is expected to be several months later. 

If a judge rules that the planning inspector’s decision was taken unlawfully, the decision will be quashed. 

Mathilda Dennis said: 

“As the UN Secretary General has said ‘new oil development is moral and economic madness’.  The climate and ecological crisis is irrefutable and becoming more urgent by the day – we hope that the High Court Judge will take this into consideration when reviewing the decision about Biscathorpe.” 

Amanda Suddaby of SOS Biscathorpe said:    

“Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty have recently been re-branded ‘National Landscapes’ to reflect the important role they play in mitigating against climate change and ecological breakdown. It is therefore impossible to see how fossil fuel development in these precious areas can be justified.  It defies all logic. 

“We are pleased that a High Court Judge will now consider the balance between a small and uncertain quantity of oil that will probably be exported against the requirement to protect and enhance a National Landscape considered vital in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.” 

Leigh Day solicitor Julia Eriksen, who represents Mathilda Dennis of SOS Biscathorpe, said: 

“We are really pleased the Court has granted our client permission to advance these important grounds in the High Court. Our client will argue that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully and irrationally in overturning Lincolnshire County Council’s decision to refuse planning permission. This case is one of several dealing with fossil fuel development in protected areas in the name of energy security – it raises important issues around the correct interpretation of national planning policy for these major developments in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. 

Counsel instructed are Estelle Dehon and Dr Lois Lane of Cornerstone chambers. 

SOS Biscathorpe is crowdfunding to support the legal claim.

Julia Eriksen
Climate change Environment Human rights Planning

Julia Eriksen

Julia is an associate solicitor in the human rights team

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