Three climate change activists are seeking to challenge the UK’s support for continued North Sea oil and gas production through the High Court in a bid to end fossil fuel production in British waters.
The campaigners, who are supported by environmental groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the UK Student Climate Network, have applied for a judicial review of the Oil & Gas Authority’s strategy to “maximise the economic recovery” of the country’s reserves of hydrocarbons.
The case marks the latest effort by environment campaigners to end UK North Sea production after the government earlier this year resisted calls to follow other countries, such as Denmark, in banning new oil and gas exploration.
Instead ministers promised in March to devise a “climate compatibility” test before future oil and gas licensing rounds that would take into account evidence such as domestic demand.
The trio, represented by the law firm Leigh Day, will argue that this statutory objective of the OGA, the industry regulator, is both “irrational” in light of the UK’s legally binding 2050 net zero emissions target and fails to take into account the advantageous tax regime that applies to the North Sea.
The UK has one of the most attractive tax regimes in the world for oil and gas production, including reliefs for decommissioning, which the campaigners argue undermines the claim that all production is “economic” for the public purse.
There have been various estimates in recent years of how much decommissioning will cost the taxpayer. The latest puts the burden at more than £18bn, although oil and gas producers argue this should be seen in the context of the industry’s £360bn in tax contributions since 1970.
“The government is paying companies billions in public money to extract every last drop of oil from the North Sea when it should be focusing on decarbonising the UK economy,” said one of the three claimants, Mikaela Loach, 23, a climate activist and medical student at the University of Edinburgh.
The other claimants are Kairin van Sweeden, 54, from Aberdeen and executive director of the think-tank Modern Money Scotland, and Jeremy Cox, 65, a former oil refinery worker from Kent.
Rowan Smith, a solicitor at Leigh Day, said his clients’ case was that in “some circumstances . . . production is not ‘economic’ for the UK as a whole, but the OGA is still seeking to maximise it”. The OGA’s legal duty was 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 OGA, named as a defendant along with the government, declined to comment. The business department said it was “not appropriate” to comment because of the legal challenge.
Companies that produce oil and gas in UK waters have pledged to halve emissions that arise from the extraction process by 2030. But they argue activists’ efforts to draw a premature end to North Sea production would make the country more reliant on imports from countries where there is less scrutiny of emissions.
Oil and gas still provides three-quarters of the UK’s energy needs with domestic production meeting 70 per cent of demand in 2020.
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