High Court judge green lights legal challenge over deep sea oil drilling

Last edited 24 February 2011 at 2:15pm
24 February, 2011

A High Court Judge has given the green light to a far reaching legal challenge that will have significant implications for the oil industry.
The High Court will now review Energy Secretary Chris Huhne’s decision to grant oil drilling licenses in deep waters off the Scottish coast. (1) (2) (3)
The decision of the High Court Judge, Honourable Mr Justice Ouseley, to hear this legal challenge throws into doubt whether the government will be able to continue waiving through dangerous oil projects and presents the possibility that some already approved deep water drilling licenses could now be quashed. Dozens of other oil drilling proposals could also be impacted.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) now have 35 days to prepare a full legal defence of their position and present it to the Judge who will then consider the arguments from both sides. Affected oil companies will have the opportunity to decide whether they want to join in defending the case.
The environment group Greenpeace, who lodged the papers seeking the judicial review with the High Court back in November, argue that the granting of these licenses is unlawful. Greenpeace argues that the government has failed to carry out an “appropriate assessment” of the risks that new drilling poses to protected habitats and species in light of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. (4)
The oil companies behind the proposals for deep drilling off the Scottish coast have admitted that in the event of an emergency, an oil spill would have disastrous effects. For example, Chevron admitted oil could reach shores as far away as Norway, Germany, Greenland and Norfolk. (5) Another US oil company, Hess, also admitted that some of their blow-out scenarios would see oil polluting fisheries and destroying important and protected bird colonies, and that attempts to contain the slick “are unlikely to be effective.” (6) Total oil company have described the area of sea in question as “characterised by extreme environmental conditions such as wind, wave, temperature and water depth.” (7)
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said:
“The government is ignoring the lessons from the deep water horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP spill was a game-changer, highlighting the very real risks of dangerous deep sea drilling for both important wildlife and the economy. Rather than approving ever riskier oil drilling projects Chris Huhne should be developing a comprehensive plan to end the UK’s dependence on oil.”
Sauven added:
“With the ongoing instability in the Middle East causing oil price volatility that is threatening our chances of an economic recovery, Ministers need to act now to insulate our economy by reducing our dependence on oil by ramping up the efficiency of the transport sector.”
Earlier this year, an influential group of MPs warned that taxpayers could end up footing the bill from a major spill in UK waters. (8)
The energy select committee, chaired by former Conservative Minister Tim Yeo, said they had "serious doubts" over whether companies' plans to respond to spills would work in the rough Atlantic waters off the west coast of Shetland. Yeo said, “The harsh and windy conditions in the North Sea would make an oil spill off the coast of Shetland very difficult to contain or clean up.” (9)
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently warned that there has been a sharp increase in the number of UK oil leaks, saying they regarded them as a “potential precursors to a major incident.” (10)
Greenpeace press office:
020 7865 8255
07815 004 578
Notes for editors:
(1) Greenpeace is specifically asking for judicial review of the following decisions made by the Secretary of State for energy:
A quashing order in respect of Seaward Production Licence No.P1740, granted to Faroe Petroleum on 4th October 2010.
A declaration that the government’s decisions of 22nd October 2010 that no appropriate assessment is required, under Article 6 of Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna, in respect of licences for oil exploration activities in deep water, is unlawful.
A declaration that the government’s decision of 26th October 2010 to grant further Seaward Production Licences in respect of the exploration and production of oil in deep water, pending the outcome of the completion of an appropriate assessment  following the outcome of the investigation into the causes and implications of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, is unlawful.
A declaration that the government’s reliance on the conclusions reached in the Strategic Environmental Assessment of June 2009 insofar as it relates to the exploitation of oil reserves in deep water areas is unlawful.
(2)        For the purposes of the proposed judicial review, new oil wells are considered to be “deep water” when drilled at depths of over 300m. This is consistent with the views of the UK government, Health and Safety Executive and Maritime and Coastguard Agency. See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenergy/450/450we10.htm

(3)        In particular, the area in question is the Atlantic Margin west of Shetland
(4)        Greenpeace lodged the papers with the High Court on November 12th 2010 and is case number CO/117841/2919. An “appropriate assessment” is an environmental assessment of the potential risks to protected areas, for example.
(5)        http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/dec/07/shetland-deepwater-oil-spill-forecast
(6)        http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/environment/article2899032.ece
(7)        http://www.uk.total.com/activities/west_of_shetland.asp
(8)        http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/06/oil-oil
(9)        http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/energy-and-climate-change-committee/news/uk-deepwater-drilling-/
(10)      http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8037d0d8-aeff-11df-8e4500144feabdc0.html#axzz1DHaip3u9

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