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July 24, 2023

UK government taken to court over new oil permits

Greenpeace activists protesting against oil and gas expansion near Cherbourg, February 2023. The environmental campaign group is taking the UK government to court over the prospect of new fossil fuel licences. (Photo: Lou Benoist/AFP via Getty Images)
Greenpeace activists protesting against oil and gas expansion near Cherbourg, February 2023. The environmental campaign group is taking the UK government to court over the prospect of new fossil fuel licences. (Photo: Lou Benoist/AFP via Getty Images)

Environmental campaigners Greenpeace and Uplift say the government has failed to examine properly the climate impact of issuing new oil and gas licences, while also ignoring alternatives.

The British government is being challenged in a High Court hearing on Tuesday over its latest round of new oil and gas permissions, which non-profits Greenpeace and Uplift note could lead up to 130 new licences.

The government has maintained that the fossil fuels remain essential to meeting the country’s energy needs. UK energy minister Graham Stuart attracted criticism from campaigners, including Just Stop Oil, when he told a Conservative Environment Network event in February that the North Sea “has a serious role to play for years to come”.

This is at odds with the International Energy Agency, which says that there is no need for new investment in the fossil fuel supply, under its net zero roadmap.

Greenpeace and Uplift have secured permission for a judicial review, which is the process by which the courts assess the legality of decisions taken by public bodies.

“Importantly, judicial reviews of this nature are not concerned with underlying policy choices, but rather whether government decision makers followed the right process in deciding to proceed with the licensing round,” law firm Ashurst dispute resolution partner Tom Cummins told Sustainable Views. “The court will be asked to consider whether the correct information was taken into account, and the right reasons given for the decision.”

Teja Pisk, senior associate at law firm Stevens & Bolton, told Sustainable Views that she expected Greenpeace and Uplift to be “reasonably confident” ahead of the case.

“The bar to securing permission is high: the court must be satisfied that there is an arguable ground for judicial review, which has a real prospect of success,” she said.  

“The fact that Greenpeace and Uplift are here today means there is real substance to their arguments.”

Specifically, Greenpeace’s legal challenge concerns the government’s alleged failure to assess end-use emissions in its analysis conducted last year on the environmental impact of new licences (known as the Offshore Energy Strategic Environmental Assessment 4, or OESEA4).

The court will also consider Greenpeace’s accusation that the government failed to include a requirement to consider end-use emissions in its “climate compatibility checkpoint”, which evaluates the compatibility of future oil and gas licensing with the nation’s climate objectives.

Meanwhile, the Uplift challenge involves the government’s alleged failure to assess downstream greenhouse gas emissions in OESEA4 or examine alternatives to new licences.

Uplift also accuses the government of failing to explain how the new licensing round was compatible with the UK’s climate objectives.

According to Uplift executive director Tessa Khan, there are clear grounds for challenging the new licences. “There is no public benefit from new licensing: most of the UK’s gas is gone and the majority of the oil that is left will be exported,” she said. 

“This government’s pandering to the oil and gas lobby is holding back the massive expansion in cheaper renewables that we need to ensure the UK has a secure supply of affordable energy that doesn’t mess with our climate,” she added.

Pisk told Sustainable Views that she expects to see more claims of this nature in the English courts, given the courts’ willingness to hear these types of claims and as legislation develops.

“Challenges similar to Greenpeace and Uplift’s are likely to be more fruitful than say ClientEarth’s recent attempt to bring a derivative action against Shell’s directors,” she said. “Judicial review is a well-established path to challenging the decisions of public bodies.

“Greenpeace and Uplift will not face the same hurdles ClientEarth did in attempting to bring a more novel activist claim,” she added, referring to non-profit ClientEarth’s attempt to sue Shell over its climate strategy, which was dismissed by the High Court, and on which a following oral hearing proved unsuccessful yesterday.

A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said: “It’s vital we continue to solidify our energy supply and sovereignty, so we can drive down bills and safeguard our national energy security.

“Our plans to power up Britain include significant investment in new renewable and nuclear projects, but the transition to non-fossil forms of energy cannot happen overnight and even when we’re net zero, we will still need some oil and gas, as recognised by the independent Climate Change Committee.

“It would not be appropriate to comment further on ongoing legal proceedings.”


A service from the Financial Times