Climate activists launch legal challenge against government over North Sea oil and gas support

Three campaigners are taking government to High Court over its support for continued fossil fuel production

Daisy Dunne
Climate Correspondent
Wednesday 12 May 2021 14:49
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A trio of activists are taking the government to court over its continued support for fossil fuel production in the North Sea
A trio of activists are taking the government to court over its continued support for fossil fuel production in the North Sea

A trio of climate activists have launched a legal challenge against the government over its continued support for fossil fuel production in the North Sea.

The campaigners, including a medical student from Edinburgh, a former oil refinery worker from Kent and a businesswoman from Aberdeen, seek to challenge the government in the High Court over a state-backed strategy to “maximise the economic recovery” of oil and gas in UK waters.

It is the latest in a string of actions to try to bring an end to new oil and gas production in the North Sea.

In March, green groups were left bitterly disappointed when the government refused to rule out the possibility of new offshore fossil fuel exploration in the North Sea, setting it apart from other countries such as Denmark.

The Independent’s Stop Fuelling the Climate Crisis campaign is shining a light on ongoing fossil fuel production in the UK in the run-up to Cop26, a key climate conference to be held in Glasgow in November.

The activists, represented by the law firm Leigh Day, have applied for a judicial review of an updated strategy from the state-owned Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) which came into force in February of this year.

The campaigners will argue that OGA’s strategy to “maximise economic recovery” of oil and gas is “irrational” given the UK’s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and also fails to take into consideration generous tax breaks afforded to the oil and gas industry.

The UK is one of the most lucrative places in the world to drill for oil and gas as a result of government subsidies given to fossil fuel companies that cost the “public purse hundreds of millions a year”, say the activists, who have formed a new campaign group called Paid to Pollute.

“I’ve been involved in climate activism for quite a few years and I’ve done all the things you’re told to do, like lifestyle changes and non-violent direct action, and meanwhile, the government has been giving huge amounts of subsidies to prop up these declining industries rather than investing in a green transition,” one claimant Mikaela Loach, a 23-year-old activist and medical student from the University of Edinburgh, told The Independent.

“I think we need to get our priorities straight in this country – we’re meant to be hosting Cop26 this year – and there’s still large amounts of support for an industry which is causing the most amount of harm climate-wise.”

Rowan Smith, a public lawyer at Leigh Day, added: “Our clients’ case is that the OGA’s new strategy encourages companies to produce oil and gas without considering the economic repercussions of that on the public purse and the UK as a whole.

“This means that, in some circumstances, such production is not ‘economic’ for the UK as a whole, but the OGA is still seeking to maximise it. The case argues that is unlawful, having regard to the terms of the OGA’s legal duty, and also irrational, because it will result in increased levels of oil and gas production, in conflict with the UK’s legal duty to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”

The Paid to Pollute campaign is being supported by a number of environmental groups, including Greenpeace UK and Friends of the Earth Scotland.

A spokesperson for OGA declined a request for comment, while a representative of the business department said it would not be appropriate to comment, given ongoing legal proceedings.

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