Emissions from burning extracted oil ‘not relevant’ to oilfield permit decision, argues government

Lawyers representing the UK government in court have reportedly argued that the emissions which come from the burning of oil extracted by BP at its North Sea oilfield are “not relevant” when deciding to grant it a permit.

An offshore drilling rig in Scotland. Photograph: Bloomberg Creative/Getty Images

Campaign group Greenpeace is challenging the government in Scotland’s highest court, the Court of Session, over a decision to grant a permit to BP to extract 30 million barrels of oil from the Vorlich field, east of Aberdeen. Greenpeace says it is the first time an offshore oil permit has ever been challenged in court.

In a release issued today by the campaign group, Roddy Dunlop QC, who is representing the UK government’s Business Energy and Industrial Strategy Department (BEIS), is described as arguing that the legal duty to consider “indirect impacts” of oil drilling did not extend to the emissions coming from burning the oil that is extracted. 

Dunlop is quoted as saying: “It is pretty clear when one’s talking about burning the ultimate fuel, the case for Greenpeace is that it’s indirect [in its effect on climate change].

“That doesn’t work because the focus is on the project itself, and not on the end product. 

“It does not extend to whatever might be done with what is won from the installation.”

Commenting on this argument, Mel Evans, head of oil and gas transition at Greenpeace UK, said: “It is astonishing that, two months before the UK hosts global climate talks, this government is arguing in a court of law that climate change is ‘not relevant’ to oil permitting decisions.

“The biggest harm that comes from oil drilling is the emissions that come from burning the oil extracted - and that damage is recognised by energy agencies, banks and even oil companies around the world, so it is ridiculous for the UK government to argue differently.”

According to Greenpeace, the government has also argued in court today that it could not be criticised for failing to take climate considerations into account, because the group had not raised those arguments in the consultation process. 

In turn, Greenpeace argues that the government failed in its legal duty to make the consultation public, which they say “might explain why it received zero responses”.

The court hearing opened yesterday, when Greenpeace argued that when the government granted BP’s drilling permit, it failed in its legal duty to check what impact that would have on the climate. 

As part of the permit process, the government is required to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment, in which a company’s environmental statement is published and put out for public consultation. Greenpeace says this process must consider the environmental impacts of a proposed oil or gas project, in the context of other projects with similar, cumulative environmental impacts, including emissions resulting from burning the fossil fuels extracted.

According to the group, the government currently only assesses the impact of emissions that come from oil production, and disregards the emissions resulting from burning the oil extracted. 

In March, the government promised to undertake ‘climate compatibility checks’ for future licences - but these are only set to apply to permits granted to fields which have already been licensed - such as that at Vorlich or other proposed plans at Cambo oilfield, also in the North Sea. 

According to Greenpeace, the court hearing has the potential to set a landmark precedent, and could have implications for other proposals in the pipeline, such as the controversial Cambo oilfield plans.

In a statement, a government spokesperson said it could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings. 

However, the spokesperson added: “The environmental impact of all projects of this kind is assessed thoroughly, in accordance with the relevant legislation.

“Without a domestic source of oil and gas while we gradually transition to a low carbon future, the UK would be even more reliant on imports from other countries.”