UK government lawyers have argued that greenhouse gas emissions produced from burning oil are “not relevant” to granting a North Sea drilling permit, in a landmark case being heard this week, less than two months before the COP26 UN climate conference.
A lawyer representing the government also argued that assessing these emissions would be “unachievable” because they “can’t be properly measured”.
In a two-day hearing at Scotland’s highest court, Greenpeace is accusing the government of failing to consider the climate impact of allowing BP to drill 30 million barrels of oil in the Vorlich oilfield, 150 miles east of Aberdeen.
The environmental campaign group claims the government had a legal duty to assess whether the oil set to be extracted would harm the climate – but failed to consider the emissions created from burning the fossil fuel.
If the BP permit is ruled unlawful, the case could set a precedent requiring the government to assess emissions that come from burning fossil fuels.
Mel Evans, head of oil and gas transition at Greenpeace UK, said: “It is astonishing that, two months before the UK hosts global climate talks, this government is arguing in a court of law that climate change is ‘not relevant’ to oil permitting decisions.
“The biggest harm that comes from oil drilling is the emissions that come from burning the oil extracted – and that damage is recognised by energy agencies, banks and even oil companies around the world, so it is ridiculous for the UK government to argue differently.”
‘Impossible to Measure‘
This is the first time an offshore oil permit has ever been challenged in a UK court, and comes amid growing controversy over North Sea oil and gas extraction. On Monday, Greenpeace launched a legal challenge to stop drilling on the Cambo oilfield from going ahead.
DeSmog recently reported that the contractor on the project is being investigated over corruption charges and its co-founder is a major Conservative Party donor.
Roddy Dunlop QC, representing the UK government’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department, today argued that the legal duty to consider “indirect impacts” of oil drilling did not extend to the emissions coming from burning oil extracted.
“It is pretty clear when one’s talking about burning the ultimate fuel, the case for Greenpeace is that it’s indirect [in its effect on climate change],” he said in the hearing. “That doesn’t work because the focus is on the project itself, and not on the end product.”
Mr Dunlop also argued that assessing these emissions would be “unachievable” as this is “something that can’t be properly measured”.
Work began on the Vorlich oilfield in November 2020, and could produce up to 20,000 barrels of oil a day. Campaigners claim the annual emissions would equate to those of over three coal plants.
A first licence was granted to drill Vorlich in 1981, but the permit was only issued in 2018. Greenpeace activists then staged a protest against BP in 2019, by blocking the oil rig on the way to the drilling site for 12 days.
Greenpeace then took BP to court, leading to the government admitting it had acted unlawfully and having to publish the permits.
The campaign group is now claiming that the government has ignored important climate and consultation concerns relating to the oilfield.
Greenpeace says that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project did not consider the cumulative environmental impact of burning fossil fuels.
The group has also raised concerns that the “climate compatibility checkpoint”, a measurement currently being developed by the government to determine whether future oil and gas licences are compatible with the UK’s climate targets, would not apply to already-granted permits like Vorlich or Cambo.
In addition, Greenpeace has argued that the government failed to consult properly on its decision to grant BP’s Vorlich permit.
The Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), which issued the permit on behalf of the UK government, has argued that it is not obliged to consider the environment in permitting decisions, and stated that its role is to maximise the amount of oil extracted, under a policy known as Maximum Economic Recovery (MER).
This policy is the subject of a separate court case brought by campaigners who argue the assessment of North Sea economic benefits fails to take into account tax breaks afforded to companies operating there. And in May, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its oil production by 45 percent by 2030, a ruling the company has said it will appeal.
The Vorlich hearing is expected to be completed this afternoon, and a written judgment is expected from the court in the coming weeks.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said they could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, but defended the ongoing extraction of fossil fuels.
“The environmental impact of all projects of this kind is assessed thoroughly, in accordance with the relevant legislation,” they said, adding: “Without a domestic source of oil and gas while we gradually transition to a low carbon future, the UK would be even more reliant on imports from other countries.”
02/02/21: Updated to include response from the Department for Business, Energy and Inudstrial Strategy.