Greenpeace goes to court to save dolphin habitats

THE GOVERNMENT was accused in the High Court yesterday of failing to protect whales, dolphins and rare deep-sea corals in the so-called "Atlantic Frontier" west of Shetland from devastation by oil exploration.

THE GOVERNMENT was accused in the High Court yesterday of failing to protect whales, dolphins and rare deep-sea corals in the so-called "Atlantic Frontier" west of Shetland from devastation by oil exploration.

According to Greenpeace, which has launched the judicial review, the area is "the most important in Europe" for whales and dolphins. In an affidavit to the High Court, its executive director Peter Melchett said that the Government had sought to "circumvent" the EuropeanHabitats Directive, which demands endangered species and habitats be protected against damaging development.

"The days when Governments can open up new frontiers to industry without the need for strict environmental and conservation control are gone," he said. "This application seeks to protect those habitats and species that will be victims of a way of thinking about the environment that is outmoded."

The Government insists that the directive applies only within 12 nautical miles of land - a position backed by 10 oil companies including British Gas, Mobil, Texaco and Esso.

But Nigel Pleming QC, representing Greenpeace, told Mr Justice Maurice Kay that the directive applies to a distance of 200 nautical miles from land - the distance claimed by the Government as its "exclusive economic zone" in which it owns mineral and fish rights.

The Greenpeace action is supported by the RSPB, WWF, Friends of the Earth, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the Wildlife Trusts and the Environmental Investigation Agency.

If Greenpeace wins, the Government will have to conduct a full environmental assessment (EA) of marine life, identify areas of especially high wildlife value, and ensure that vulnerable species and habitats receive adequate protection.

Some areas could then be closed to oil exploration, while oil companies would have to commission their own EAs and work around the needs of wildlife - for example by timing seismic tests to avoid disturbing migratory whales.

Surveys by Greenpeace and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society show 22 species of whale and dolphin use the Atlantic Frontier area affected by oil development, including rare blue, humpback and fin whales. It is also home to many healthy reefs of the deep-water coral Lophelia pertusa .

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