Three weeks to COP26: Government wins oil case, arguing oil emissions ‘not relevant’ to climate

Judges said oil and gas have no material effect on climate change


Greenpeace has lost its court case, challenging the UK government’s decision to grant a permit to BP to drill the Vorlich Field, in the North Sea. Judges in Scotland’s highest court have ruled that the government’s decision to grant a permit was lawful, despite the fact that the government gave no consideration to the climate impact of burning the fossil fuels extracted.

Greenpeace will seek to launch an appeal before the Supreme Court.

 The full written judgment will be available here. Footage of Greenpeace’s Vorlich protest, confronting a BP rig at sea, is here. Case background available here.

John Sauven, Greenpeace UK executive director, said: “The government is celebrating a win for the fossil fuel industry after its lawyers argued in court that emissions from burning oil extracted by BP are ‘not relevant’ when granting an oil permit.

“And now the Prime Minister is poised to sign off even more oil if he approves a new oil field at Cambo – against official guidance from climate experts. 

“In just a few weeks’ time Boris Johnson will be opening global climate talks where his actions, not his words, will be what counts. 

“And right now his actions are covered in oil. We will not give up the fight for the climate. Our intention is to appeal this ruling before the Supreme Court.”

Judges concluded that:

  • It is not possible to assess emissions that result from burning oil and gas. 
  • The UK is still reliant on oil and gas, referencing the current gas price crisis, but confusingly added that extracting oil and gas does not increase or maintain consumption of oil and gas. 
  • It could not be argued that oil and gas has any material effect on climate change.
  • The matter is political, not legal.

In a written ruling, Lord Carloway, the Lord President, said: “It would not be practicable, in an assessment of the environmental effects of a project for the extraction of fossil fuels, for the decision maker to conduct a wide ranging examination into the effects, local or global, of the use of that fuel by the final consumer.”

The government has said that it plans to introduce climate compatibility checks for new licences before next year. 

Referencing recent political developments, around the gas price crisis, the Lord President added: “Although the appellants’ aspiration is for such extraction to cease, it does not appear to be contended that the UK economy is not still reliant in a number of different ways on the consumption of oil and gas. At present, a shortage of oil and gas supplies is a matter of public concern. 

“The argument is, in any event, an academic one. It is not maintained that the exploitation of the Vorlich field would increase, or even maintain, the current level of consumption. Unless it did so, it is difficult to argue that it would have any material effect on climate change; even if it is possible to arrive at a figure for its contribution by arithmetical calculation relative to the production of oil and gas overall. The Secretary of State’s submission that these are matters for decision at a relatively high level of Government, rather than either by the court or in relation to one oilfield project, is correct. The issue is essentially a political and not a legal one.”


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