Boris Johnson’s announcement for a new 2035 target to end the sales of new diesel and petrol vehicles, shows that the decision to approve ExxonMobil’s £800m Fawley Refinery Expansion was ill-conceived.

This month, Boris Johnson announced that 2035 would be the revised cut-off for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, five years earlier than the former target. If this becomes a legally binding target, as indeed it should, then some of the key arguments in favour of the new development at Fawley Refinery to expand the capacity for automotive diesel fuel production, are deeply flawed. 

But this also exposes a major issue with planning policy and the way that current planning applications are handled. At the time of the Fawley Refinery application, ExxonMobil were able to justify the development based on recent trends for increased demand in diesel fuel. But as I pointed out in my response to the public consultation, the application failed to account for the necessary shift away from diesel and petrol engines, as an inevitable consequence of the accelerating impacts of the climate crisis. In spite of the numerous examples I and others cited showing that there was significant potential for a shift away from petrol and diesel, including recent precedents from government initiatives and advisory reports, it was the policy that mattered, first and foremost, and the policy was – 2040 for the end of new diesel and petrol cars.

Again, it didn’t matter that the Committee on Climate Change had advised that to meet the government’s own 2050 net zero target, the date for new petrol and diesel car sales needed to be brought forward to at least 2035, OR that this report had yet to receive a response from the government. In this way, objections to applications are constricted to the policy that persists at the time, even if there’s evidence that a month or two after the application’s approval, this is likely to change. 

So now, we’re locked into a further 25 year minimum period of production for automotive diesel oil, in spite of the new target to end sales of new diesel vehicles at least a full 11 years earlier than the earliest projected decommission of the expanded development. 

And as I pointed out in my consultation response, if the diesel isn’t supplying our domestic market, it’ll just be exported abroad. That’s another problem with Exxon’s justifications for the expansion. A crucial factor in the decision to approve the expansion was that there would be a reduction in shipping movements to import the diesel fuel into the UK, as is currently the case. This is because demand outstrips UK refineries’ capacity to supply diesel because their older infrastructure has been set up to produce petrol and gasoline to a far greater extent than diesel, which later became a more popular fuel. The point here is that, any CO2 emissions we might save in the short-term by reducing the need for imported diesel, will later be eclipsed when the demand for diesel at home drops and ExxonMobil start to sell the product elsewhere. 

Policy is a big problem, but we shouldn’t let the New Forest District Council off the hook either, not when they fell line and sinker for Exxon’s promises. I hate to be the one who says ‘I told you so,’ but even ExxonMobil gave them a hint of what was to come. In Exxon’s application they stated that they expect the demand and supply disparity for diesel to be a problem for “at least a decade.”  After that they’ll continue to profit wherever the demand takes them. For the sake of the residents of the New Forest and nearby areas I hope the NFDC are ready for the air pollution problems from all the new shipping cargo that will result. 

But the target should be sooner. While it isn’t, councils should use all policy at their disposal to object to fossil fuel infrastructure. The climate crisis is happening now, has been happening for years to communities in other parts of the world, and will not abate unless councils act with the courage, integrity and reason that the science demands and their communities deserve.  

Hannah Sharland – Save Our Shores Bournemouth

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