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UK government faces triple legal challenge over major fossil fuel expansion in North Sea

Published by , Editorial Assistant
Oilfield Technology,

The UK government is potentially facing three separate legal challenges as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Uplift seek to stop up to 130 new oil and gas licences from going ahead.

The campaign groups have each written to the Business Secretary, Grant Shapps, setting out why they consider the 33rd offshore licensing round to be unlawful and calling for the decision, taken by his predecessor, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to be reversed.

The groups say that the government’s fixation with fossil fuels, instead of cleaner, cheaper forms of energy, has left it fighting multiple legal battles. Campaigners already have legal challenges underway relating to the Horse Hill oil project in Surrey, the Jackdaw gas field in the North Sea, and the US$1 billion financing for a gas mega-project in Mozambique. And there could be even more legal headaches looming if the government approves development plans for the Cambo or Rosebank fields.

In their letters before action – the first step in a legal challenge – all three NGOs have warned the UK government about its failure to properly take into account the full scale of planet-heating gases released by the new licensing round. Greenpeace has already taken the further step of filing an application for judicial review against the government’s decision.

After world leaders failed to agree on emissions reductions at COP27 climate talks in Egypt, Greenpeace campaigners fear that moves by the UK government to unleash up to 130 new North Sea licences will torpedo any hopes of keeping global temperature rises to 1.5°C.

Philip Evans, oil and gas campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “These licences are a complete disaster. And the government has failed in its legal duty to properly assess their climate impact, choosing to ignore 80% of the emissions they would generate. Instead of new oil and gas, the government could tackle both the energy and the climate crises by properly taxing fossil fuel companies and using that money to invest in home insulation and cheap, clean renewable power. Whenever the government unlawfully approves new oil and gas, we stand ready to take legal action.”

Awa Traore, who leads Greenpeace International's Racial Justice Global Project, said: “When the UK extracts oil from the North Sea it sends a deadly ripple effect out to the rest of the world - with lives lost or torn apart by the climate crisis. Africa is being hit hardest and fastest by global heating and extreme weather. Here in Senegal, for instance, we saw people tragically killed by flash floods earlier this year.”

In their letter to the government, Friends of the Earth take aim at the government’s so-called “climate compatibility checkpoint,” which was introduced to assess the climate impacts of future offshore oil and gas developments. The group argues that the mechanism is unlawful because it ignores climate science.

Niall Toru, senior lawyer at Friends of the Earth, said: “Approving new oil and gas projects is clearly incompatible with achieving our climate goals. The government’s “climate compatibility checkpoint” is an exercise in greenwashing. It gives a false impression that climate impacts are being considered, while brazenly side-stepping scientists’ warnings that new fossil fuel developments are incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. Future licensing of North Sea oil and gas projects means the UK will fall disastrously behind on cutting emissions and phasing out fossil fuels. We’ve written to the minister to explain why we think the checkpoint is unlawful and are considering our legal options.”

Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, said: “Jacob Rees Mogg was in post for less than two months but, unless reversed, his decision to greenlight new oil and gas licensing rounds will have serious long-term consequences. Beyond the climate harm, the government is also failing to take account of what new drilling will do to the UK’s seas and the creatures that live in them, from whales and dolphins to deep-sea sponges and quahogs, which are clams that can live to be hundreds of years old.

“Aside from the multiple legal reasons to fight this decision, there is no public benefit from new licensing: new North Sea fields won’t lower UK energy bills, will do next to nothing to shore up UK energy security and will only lock us into a dying industry far longer than is necessary. The government needs to signal to oil and gas companies that the time to shift to cheaper, cleaner renewables is now.”

Legal experts have described the North Sea as the world’s “highest risk” area for oil and gas legal disputes. Last year, an industry expert said the “political noise” around Cambo in particular could have an impact on investment appetite, describing it as a “huge spanner in the works.”

The campaign groups are challenging the government’s decision to launch a new offshore licensing round on the following grounds:

Greenpeace argues that the government has botched this decision and is failing to assess the impact of the carbon emissions that will come from burning the oil and gas extracted under these new licences. Greenpeace argues that the government has a legal duty to assess these emissions.

Friends of the Earth argues that the government’s compatibility checkpoint is not fit for purpose. Although it is purportedly designed to allow ministers to consider whether further licensing rounds would be compatible with the UK’s climate objectives, it will not require any consideration of the total carbon impacts of new licensing (including the burning of the oil and gas extracted). Nor will it require ministers to consider the latest science on the production gap, which shows planned fossil fuel production remains dangerously out of sync with Paris Agreement limits and is widening year on year.

Uplift argues that the government has made multiple unlawful failures in its assessment of the impact of handing out new oil and gas licences – known as UK Offshore Energy Strategic Environmental Assessment 4 – including a failure to assess the greenhouse gas emissions from burning any oil and gas extracted under new licences, a failure to take into account the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, and a failure to properly assess the marine impacts of new oil and gas developments, among others.

The UN, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and climate scientists are all warning that the world cannot invest in new oil and gas fields if we are to have a hope of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5C. The IEA also highlighted that governments looking to protect against the current disruption in energy markets can do so in ways that do not risk undermining or slowing down the energy transition.

The UK government is looking increasingly isolated in pressing ahead with new oil and gas licences. Last month, Norway set a significant limit to new licences by announcing that there will be no licensing round for frontier areas during this parliamentary period, until September 2025. Denmark, Ireland and France have all already ruled out issuing new oil and gas licences.

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