Greenpeace has lost a legal challenge to the UK government’s decision to allow BP to drill 30 million barrels of oil from the Vorlich Field in the North Sea.
Judges at Scotland’s highest court ruled that the decision to grant a permit was lawful, even though the government did not consider the climate impact of burning the fossil fuels extracted.
Greenpeace has said it will appeal to the Supreme Court.
The written ruling, published today, referred to a similar case brought by Surrey campaigner, Sarah Finch.
She argued that Surrey County Council should have taken into account the carbon emissions from burning oil extracted at the Horse Hill site when granting planning permission for production. The council and the government argued that only carbon emissions from the process of extraction had to be considered.
In the Scottish case, the court concluded today:
- It was not possible to assess emissions from burning oil and gas
- Extracting oil and gas did not increase or maintain consumption of oil and gas
- It could not be argued that oil and gas had any material effect on climate change
- This was a political not legal issue
Lord Carloway, the Lord President, said in the ruling:
“It would not be practicable, in an assessment of the environmental effects of a project for the extraction of fossil fuels, for the decision maker to conduct a wide ranging examination into the effects, local or global, of the use of that fuel by the final consumer.”
He also said:
“It is not maintained that the exploitation of the Vorlich field would increase, or even maintain, the current level of consumption. Unless it did so, it is difficult to argue that it would have any material effect on climate change; even if it is possible to arrive at a figure for its contribution by arithmetical calculation relative to the production of oil and gas overall.
“The Secretary of State’s submission that these are matters for decision at a relatively high level of Government, rather than either by the court or in relation to one oilfield project, is correct. The issue is essentially a political and not a legal one.”
Greenpeace said this was the first time an offshore oil permit had been challenged in court. After the ruling, the organisation’s executive director, John Sauven, said:
“The government is celebrating a win for the fossil fuel industry after its lawyers argued in court that emissions from burning oil extracted by BP are ‘not relevant’ when granting an oil permit.
“And now the prime minister is poised to sign off even more oil if he approves a new oil field at Cambo – against official guidance from climate experts.
“In just a few weeks’ time Boris Johnson will be opening global climate talks where his actions, not his words, will be what counts.
“And right now his actions are covered in oil. We will not give up the fight for the climate. Our intention is to appeal this ruling before the Supreme Court.”
The UK government said in a statement:
“We welcome today’s judgment which upholds the environmental decisions made by the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning.
“While we are working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels, there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming years as we transition to lower carbon, more secure forms of energy generated in this country.”
The International Energy Agency warned in May 2021:
“There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway.
“Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.”
In August 2021, the UN secretary general Antonia Guterres described as a “code red for humanity” a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The conclusion, that humans have caused ‘unprecedented’ and ‘irreversible’ change to climate, are to be discussed at COP26 climate talks in Glasgow next month.