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UK faces triple legal challenge over new oil and gas

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A coalition of campaign groups have vowed to mount three separate legal challenges to the UK government in a bid to stop the award of 130 new North Sea oil and gas licences.

  • The UK government faces challenges from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Uplift over its failure to consider full climate impacts of more fossil fuel extraction.
  • Challengers point out investing in new fossil fuels won’t affect energy bills today,  but will drive up carbon emissions and accelerate climate destruction.
  • Campaigners argue the 130 new licences could torpedo any hope of achieving the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal.

The campaign groups have each written to the Business Secretary, Grant Shapps, setting out why they consider the 33rd offshore licensing round to be unlawful and calling for the decision, taken by his predecessor Jacob Rees-Mogg, to be reversed.

Each of the three letters – which mark the first step in a formal legal challenge – argue the government has failed to properly take into account the full impact of emissions that would be released by the pursuit, production and burning of new oil and gas resources.

Government rush for energy security ignored realities of UK law

Campaigners said they intend their challenges to create a major “legal headache” for the business secretary, while Greenpeace has already filed an application for judicial review against the government’s decision to proceed with the process.

Pushed through under the short tenure of Prime Minister Liz Truss, the Licensing Round saw the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) offer more than 900 blocks of offshore acreage. Unveiling the round in October, the NSTA said over 100 licences could eventually be handed out for new oil and gas exploration. Applications for blocks will close on 12 January, after which initial results are expected in late spring 2023.

Triple threat take aim at UK government

In its challenge, Greenpeace argues that the government has “botched” the decision to hold another licensing round and has failed to assess the impact the emissions that will come from burning the oil and gas extracted from new licences.

It argues that the government has “a legal duty to assess these emissions.” It has gone one step further than its compatriots and already filed an application for judicial review against the government’s decision.

Friends of the Earth (FotE) will contend that the government’s climate compatibility checkpoint – a three-point vetting process for new licensing – is “not fit for purpose” and “ignores climate science”.

FotE says the lack of consideration of the total carbon impacts of the licensing and burning of extracted oil and gas, and a lack of analysis as to the potential global production gap, mean the policy may be incompatible with the UK’s climate objectives.

Although UK production is still projected to decline at 7% per year,  global production needs to shrink by only 3-4% to meet commitments to limit global warming to 1.5°C, according to the latest Production Gap report. On current projections however,  in 2030 oil and gas production will be double the amount possible to meet the Paris targets.

Finally, Uplift argues that the  government made multiple unlawful failures in its assessment of the impact of handing out new oil and gas licences – known as UK Offshore Energy Strategic Environmental Assessment 4– including a failure to assess the greenhouse gas emissions from burning any oil and gas extracted under new licences,  a failure to take into account the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, and a failure to properly assess the marine impacts of new oil and gas developments, among others.

Uplift executive director Tessa Khan said: “Jacob Rees Mogg was in post for less than two months but, unless reversed, his decision to greenlight new oil and gas licensing rounds will have serious long-term consequences.

“Aside from the multiple legal reasons to fight this decision, there is no public benefit from new licensing: new North Sea fields won’t lower UK energy bills, will do next to nothing to shore up UK energy security and will only lock us into a dying industry far longer than is necessary. The government needs to signal to oil and gas companies that the time to shift to cheaper, cleaner renewables is now.”

An exercise in greenwashing

While the government has defended its action on oil and gas licences on the grounds that energy security must be a priority, many campaigners argue that pushing expensive new projects that damage the environment is a short-sighted move.

The UN, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its IEA World Energy Outlook 2022 and climate scientists are all warning that the world cannot invest in new oil and gas fields if we are to have a hope of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5C.

The IEA also highlighted that governments looking to protect against the current disruption in energy markets can do so in ways that do not risk undermining or slowing down the energy transition.

Greenpeace oil and gas campaigner Philip Evans branded the licensing process “a complete disaster”, while FotE senior lawyer Niall Toru said approving new projects is “clearly incompatible” with achieving climate targets.

Niall Toru said: “The government’s ‘climate compatibility checkpoint’ is an exercise in greenwashing. It gives a false impression that climate impacts are being considered, while brazenly side-stepping scientists’ warnings that new fossil fuel developments are incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.”

He added: “Future licensing of North Sea oil and gas projects means the UK will fall disastrously behind on cutting emissions and phasing out fossil fuels. We’ve written to the minister to explain why we think the checkpoint is unlawful and are considering our legal options.”

Campaigners added that the UK looks increasingly isolated in pursuing new licences and pointed to Norway, which recently postponed its next frontier round until after 2025. Meanwhile, Denmark, Ireland and France have all ruled out new permitting.

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