Residents challenge ‘unlawful’ Lincolnshire oil drilling plans at High Court

The decision to approve an oilfield in the Lincolnshire Wolds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), was unlawful, the High Court has heard.

Campaign group SOS Biscathorpe is bringing legal action against the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities over the decision to permit exploratory oil drilling and production at the site in Biscathorpe.

The group’s barrister, Estelle Dehon KC, told the High Court in London that major development in AONBs is permitted only in “exceptional circumstances” and must be “in the public interest”, and that the planning inspector had failed to consider both of these issues together.

Ms Dehon said on Wednesday that the inspector did not factor in renewable energy sources as an alternative to drilling for oil, which amounted to an unlawful error.

She argued he had wrongly and “irrationally” put “great weight” on the “minuscule part” that extracted oil from the site would play in the UK’s energy security.

She added that his report stated that the total amount of oil expected to be recovered from the site over the production period would “amount to only several days’ supply” for the UK and that there was a possibility the fuel could be exported and not used domestically at all.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is defending the challenge, telling the court the decision in November 2023 was lawful and that renewable energy is currently “not a substitute for oil production”.

Richard Moules KC, for the department, said in written submissions that planning permission was granted with consideration given to the area’s AONB status but that drilling for new oil was in the public interest.

Of the inspector, Mr Moules continued: “He recognised the strong policy protection for the AONB and the policy expectation in favour of conserving and enhancing the AONB.”

“In the circumstances of this application, development for renewable energy is not an alternative to oil production.”

He added: “The inspector considered national policy and found that there is a need for indigenous fossil fuel supply during the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Activists stood outside the court holding banners bearing slogans including “soil not oil” and “the science is clear, no new oil wells”, with several campaigners later sitting at the back of the courtroom listening to proceedings.

Mathilda Dennis, a campaigner from SOS Biscathorpe, said outside court: “There is no case for new fossil fuel exploration anywhere but to consider it in an AONB in proximity to such rare and precious chalk streams is utterly unthinkable especially in a climate and nature crisis.”

The bid comes after similar challenges have been brought by other local groups over decisions to allow exploratory gas drilling near the village of Dunsfold at the edge of the Surrey Hills AONB and near Balcombe in the High Weald AONB.

The hearing before Mrs Justice Farbey is due to conclude on Thursday with a decision expected at a later date.