Campaign group argues 1981 permit was granted without consideration of climate impacts
The government is facing a “landmark” legal challenge over the 1981 approval of a permit which allowed BP to drill for 30 million barrels of oil in the North Sea, with Greenpeace arguing no consideration of the climate impact was made.
Greenpeace is now calling for BP’s permit to drill the Vorlich oil field be revoked, with the group suggesting the case could have “huge implications” for the proposed Cambo oil permit.
It is the first time an offshore oil permit has ever been challenged in court. If Greenpeace wins, the ruling from the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court, is expected to have a significant impact on how future oil permit decisions are made.
Just two months ahead of the UN’s Cop26 climate summit, hosted by the UK in Glasgow, in which the British government is seeking to assert itself as a global “climate leader”, the latest challenge to its oil interests will cause “much embarrassment”, Greenpeace suggested.
Mel Evans, head of oil and gas transition at Greenpeace UK, said: “It’s outrageous that the UK government routinely rubber stamps oil permits – like this one and the proposed permit for Cambo – while completely ignoring the climate impact, which causes extreme weather and deaths.
“We hope the judge will agree that legally this cannot be allowed to happen. It makes no sense for the government to overlook the most harmful consequences of oil and gas when making these decisions.”
She added: “We are two months away from hosting global climate talks, and we’re at code red for humanity. BP’s permit must be revoked, and Cambo must be stopped. By setting a clear path to phasedown oil and gas the UK government must then properly support workers and communities through the energy transition.”
Greenpeace said that if BP’s Vorlich drilling permit is revoked, the case could set a precedent requiring the government to assess emissions that come from burning fossil fuels, before granting future oil drilling permits.
This could ultimately mean that no future permits could be approved, because experts at the International Energy Agency and conclusions from the latest IPCC report indicate that governments must rapidly phase out use of fossil fuels.
Greenpeace said they will argue that when the government granted BP’s drilling permit, it failed in its legal duty to check what impact that would have on the climate.
As part of the permit process, the government is required to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment, in which a company’s environmental statement is published and put out for public consultation.
This process must consider the environmental impacts of a proposed oil or gas project, in the context of other projects with similar, cumulative environmental impacts – including emissions resulting from burning the fossil fuels extracted.
But at present, the government only assesses the impact of emissions that come from oil production, and disregards the emissions resulting from burning the oil extracted.
Greenpeace said emissions from burning the oil extracted at Vorlich “will be the equivalent of over three coal plants running for one year”.
The group will also argue that the government failed to properly consult on its decision to grant BP’s original Vorlich permit, with the consultation process so poorly publicised it received no responses. Furthermore, the government then failed to publish its final decision, until it was forced to do so by Greenpeace in the courts.
Another element of Greenpeace’s argument is that the government failed to accurately assess how much flaring would take place as a result of this permit being granted.
Greenpeace claims BP misstated its expected flaring in its initial application, and underestimated the flaring by 10 times, in what appears to be a clerical error. The government failed to notice this mistake as part of its permit process.
This week’s court case is the latest in a string of legal battles where campaigners are holding governments and oil companies to account for their policies on fossil fuels in the face of climate destruction.
The UK government is facing a second legal challenge from campaigners at Paid to Pollute, over its policy of granting state aid to oil companies.
And in May, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its oil production by 45 per cent by 2030.
Greenpeace said it has written to the government warning that if it decides to approve an oil permit at Cambo, it will launch a legal bid to overturn the decision.
A Government spokesperson told The Independent: “We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.
“However, whilst the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels continues to fall, advice from the independent Climate Change Committee is that we cannot have a cliff-edge where oil and gas are abandoned overnight as the sector has a key role to play in our electricity supply, in providing local jobs, and in supporting the production of everyday essentials like medicines.
“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.”