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UK High Court to Hear Challenge to North Sea Oil Plan

The United Kingdom’s High Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the country’s oil and gas exploration program for the North Sea, after campaigners with Paid to Pollute, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth UK said the plan conflicted with the Boris Johnson government’s legal duty to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.

The campaigners “presented an arguable case” which was “in the public interest” against the UK Oil and Gas Authority and Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Justice Justine Thornton ruled.

However, “this is a technical and complex field which a layperson, including the Judge, cannot fully understand without the benefit of expert evidence.”

The campaigners say the OGA’s new strategy, which took effect in February, supports fossil activity that would not be economically viable without tax subsidies, particularly for decommissioning costs. “The industry argues that decom relief does not constitute a subsidy but a ‘legitimate cost of doing business’,” Energy Voice writes, and claims “that reducing oil and gas activity in the UK would see further reliance on imported fuel which carries a heavier carbon footprint.”

The case will likely be heard this year, with a decision to follow early next.

“With climate change high on the public agenda, our clients are perfectly entitled to ensure that the government is sticking to its commitments on net-zero emissions,” said Rowan Smith, the campaigners’ solicitor. “They believe the OGA’s strategy unlawfully contradicts these commitments, and unlawfully allows production of oil and gas that does not benefit the UK economy as a whole.”

The Oil and Gas Authority responded that the new strategy,  “which includes net-zero requirements on industry, is the primary tool the OGA has to hold industry to account on emission reductions.”

City A.M. says the UK’s new North Sea Transition Deal “will pour £16 billion into the North Sea oil industry over the next decade in a bid to reduce carbon emissions,” with the cash coming from both the private sector and government.

Earlier this month, 14 campaign organizations pushed back and more than 50,000 people signed open letters opposing the UK’s use of a “serious loophole, by design” to approve a new oilfield off the Shetland Islands, just months before the country hosts this year’s United Nations climate conference, COP 26. Co-owners Siccar Point Energy and Royal Dutch Shell will start drilling next year if the project is approved, and they expect to extract 150 to 170 million barrels of oil from the field by 2050.