Lawyers raise alarm as court dismisses oil refinery pollution case

17 May 2019

A UK oil refinery will continue operating without proper legal scrutiny of its operating permit, an environmental law group has claimed, following a High Court hearing yesterday. ClientEarth has argued that the Humber Refinery’s permit does not comply with EU pollution laws.

Today’s result emphasises shortcomings in environmental oversight in the UK – a concern made worse by Brexit.

ClientEarth challenged the Environment Agency over granting the refinery an operating permit it says is flawed because of how much it allows the plant to pollute. ClientEarth says today’s decision prompts questions over how effectively the UK industrial sector is regulated and how transparent the process is. The law group is repeating calls for a stronger environmental watchdog to police UK decisions and enforcement.

ClientEarth law and policy advisor Tom West said: “The court’s finding in this case makes clear that environmental governance in the UK has some way to go. New processes are needed that are up to the job of protecting our environment and empowering people to defend it, especially in highly complex and technical cases.

“Brexit makes this more urgent – gaps in our governance system will widen without the EU’s oversight institutions. Michael Gove has made the right noises about creating an environmental watchdog, but his environment bill is not materialising. And if it’s not strengthened, then public authority decisions like these may continue to go unscrutinised and unchallenged.”

The refinery, in the Humber, North Lincolnshire, processes around 220,000 barrels of oil per day. ClientEarth lawyers maintain that it could be consistently exceeding legal limits for emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, due to a permit that states it may do so.

However, the Court found itself unable to assess these claims, deferring to the Environment Agency as an “expert regulator”, despite much of the Agency’s reasoning on the matter remaining undisclosed.

West added: “Disputes over important and highly technical decisions like these must be heard and rigorously assessed. Questions raised in the public interest must not go unanswered.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

The Humber Refinery is run by global petrochemicals company Phillips 66. It claims to be “one of the most sophisticated [refineries] in Europe” and “one of the best in the world”, producing around 14 million litres of petrol a day. But according to ClientEarth, its operating permit, granted by the Environment Agency, allows it to pollute above the limits set out in EU law.

Updated EU pollution standards for refineries under the Industrial Emission Directive (IED) were published in October 2014, giving the Environment Agency and operators 4 years (until October 2018) to comply. Known as the Best Available Techniques conclusions, they set standards for oil refineries around Europe. They specify what techniques must be used to reduce pollution and set limits for a number of substances that pose a threat to human and environmental health.

ClientEarth has taken legal cases over operators’ failure to comply with similar EU industrial pollution laws in several countries around Europe.

The High Court determined that was not able to hear out ClientEarth’s argument because the Environment Agency has considerable discretion in its decision-making on technical matters such as these. The result is that valid and serious public interest concerns from civil society have been left unanswered.

ClientEarth has repeatedly made the case for the forthcoming Environment Bill to contain new and innovative legal mechanisms to improve the effectiveness of environmental law post-Brexit.

Parliamentary committees EFRA and the EAC both heavily criticised the weakness of the proposed UK environmental watchdog in their pre-legislative scrutiny reports of the UK Environment Bill.

About us

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin, New York City and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.

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