UK government to face legal challenge over support for oil and gas in North Sea

A trio of activists are taking government to High Court over its support for continued fossil fuel production

Daisy Dunne
Climate Correspondent
Wednesday 28 July 2021 12:04
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The UK is to face a legal challenge over its continued support for fossil fuel production in the North Sea after a case brought by a trio of climate activists was given the green light by the High Court.

The activists, including a medical student, a former oil refinery worker and a businesswoman, will challenge the government over a state-backed strategy to “maximise the economic recovery” of oil and gas in UK waters.

The “Paid to Pollute” group argues that a recent strategy from the state-owned Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) is unlawful because it is in conflict with the UK’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050 and encourages oil and gas production that is not economic for the UK as a whole.

A High Court order released this week said that activists had “presented an arguable case” and that the claim for a judicial review of the strategy had “sufficient merit to grant permission” to proceed to a full hearing.

The case is expected to be heard before the end of this year with a decision in early 2022.

Mikaela Loach, one of the claimants and a medical student from the University of Edinburgh, said that the UK must heed calls to end new fossil fuel exploration “in a year when so many communities have been ravaged by heatwaves and extreme weather”.

“The government has been giving huge amounts of subsidies to prop up these declining industries rather than investing in a green transition,” she previously told The Independent.

Prof Peter Newell, a researcher of politics and environmental issues at the University of Sussex, described the High Court’s decision as “hugely significant”.

“The government will now have to answer for why they have spent £3.2bn of public money on North Sea oil and gas companies since signing the Paris Agreement in 2015,” he told The Independent.

“Instead of ‘maximising economic recovery’ of offshore oil and gas as the OGA proposes, the UK should be leading the way by leaving fossil fuels in the ground and boosting green jobs in the renewable sector.”

In June, a major assessment from the world’s energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency, said there can be no further fossil fuel expansion in any country beyond 2021 if global climate goals are to be met.

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

The UK is facing a separate legal threat over plans for a new oil field in the North Sea which could be approved before Cop26, the global climate summit taking place in Glasgow in November.

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.

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

The OGA strategy came into force in February of this year. A spokesperson said the state-owned agency was “disappointed that the claimants are challenging the OGA Strategy while claiming to represent environmental interests”.

“We remain firmly of the view that the OGA Strategy, which includes net-zero requirements on industry, is the primary tool the OGA has to hold industry to account on emission reductions, as well as ensuring pace on essential energy transition projects including carbon capture and storage,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson from the government’s department for business, energy and industrial strategy declined a request for comment.

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