In October 2020, Greenpeace brought a case against the U.K. government for awarding BP Plc a permit to drill for 30 million barrels of oil in the North Sea. Greenpeace is challenging the permit on the grounds that the government allegedly failed (i) its legal duty to assess climate impacts, since it only weighed the effects of emissions from production, and not from the consumption of the oil extracted; (ii) to comply with public consultation requirements; and (iii) to assess how much flaring (the controlled burning of natural gas) would take place as a result of the permit being granted. Greenpeace asked the court to overturn the government’s decision to grant BP a permit for the Vorlich oil field. The lack of access to information throughout the permitting process was previously questioned by Greenpeace in another case.
The original license for the Vorlich field was granted in 1981, when no obligations or legislation existed to regulate climate impacts. In 2018, the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) approved the development of BP’s 200 million-pound ($275 million) Vorlich project, with the consent of the Secretary of State, which carries out the Environmental Statement process, and granted a final permit to extract 30 million barrels of oil. In 2020, the notice of the Secretary of State’s agreement to the consent, and the OGA’s grant of consent in relation to the Vorlich field were published. BP began extraction from Vorlich in November 2020 and expects to extract 20,000 barrels of oil per day at peak production.
A hearing was held in September 2021. According to news reports, the UK government argued during the hearing that the legal duty to consider indirect impacts of oil drilling on climate change did not extend to the emissions coming from burning oil extracted and that assessing such emissions would be impossible. A decision from a panel of three judges is pending.
On October 7, 2021 a three judge panel from the Scottish Court of Sessions dismissed the case. The Court confirmed that the matters under consideration, including the issue of consumption emissions, could be considered on the merits by the court despite the previous proceedings. Nonetheless, the Court dismissed the contention that the Secretary of State should have considered the consumption based emissions associated with the project. The Court argued that there was no duty to consider consumption based emissions from the project as part of the environmental impact assessment of the project, arguing that the question of whether the development of new oil and gas projects should cease is a political and not a legal one.