Government wins oil drilling case: emissions would not have “material effect on climate change”

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.

Scottish Court of Session
Scottish Court of Sessions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Ms Finch lost her case at the High Court last year but has been granted an appeal, which will be heard in London next month (November 2021).

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.

9 replies »

  1. Well, David, perhaps some of it will be used for red diesel, to produce the food that the UK consumes? All very good to increase forests, but then agricultural yield needs to be further increased to compensate for the reduced land left in cultivation, so it looks as if tractors etc. will be working 24/7. Unless, population is reduced, or grain is not diverted to cars.
    Robin may need a little bit as well to keep his lights burning whilst he taps away in the middle of the night. (Or, maybe it is not the middle of the night where he is, and he has done a Greta to get there?) Then there is the IOW who import the stuff from the mainland to generate their electricity whilst doing as you do, David, stating they don’t need the stuff. Or, perhaps it will all go into plastic keyboards for the activists?

    Maybe, some will go into India, to allow some forest to be left for the tigers?

    Wherever it is used, it will still be used for decades to come and energy security will not come from renewables for at least the same amount of time. The only way to counter that is to deny the physics and the arithmetic, and current events will put that into perspective.

  2. I’ve looked at the court’s conclusions in the bullet points again and again. Other than it possibly being political rather than legal (other than perhaps the legal framework of the committee on climate change), I can only agree that the findings are utterly absurd, unless they don’t accurately reflect the detail of the court’s decision.

    • Quite right, Mike. Until the government starts considering “the climate impact of burning the fossil fuels extracted” we can accord it no credibility as a contributor of integrity in the struggle against extinction to which it proclaims its adherence. In so far as it claims this is an overarching goal and a criterion in justification of its policies, surely the courts can as a minimum point to this discrepancy even if the stated policies of the government are not enshrined in law. However, I am probably demonstrating my ignorance of such matters. Absurd, though, this decision and its formulation remain.

      • So, 1720, would be precluded from using his/her plastic keyboard if the climate impact of burning /processing fossil fuels extracted was put into law.

        Much as that would be welcomed, it would soon be challenged and overturned.

        It is all pretty straight forward. Legislation and law has to consider what would result as a consequence. It is not possible to say that law operates only for the selected whims of a few, in a selected area. It has to stand up against challenge from all quarters and what is being proposed by GP would not. So, it will fail. Interesting that the ruling made it quite clear that the development of this field could not be shown to increase, or even maintain, current consumption of oil. On a smaller scale, so did the Wressle ruling. When the activists have ceased denial of that arithmetic then they may appreciate the common sense.

  3. It is utterly absurd that Courts are having to waste time on such obvious lost causes.

    Courts are not there to make rulings that would simply keep lawyers in work for decades. They are there to introduce some common sense.

    GP, and other such bodies such as the RSPCA, keep pandering to the few extremists and ignore the vast numbers who would support much of their other work.

    The ruling states quite clearly that the arithmetic does need to be considered. It simply does not add up.

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