Court rules in favour of government over BP North Sea oil permit

A judge has ruled that the UK government’s decision to grant a permit to energy giant BP to drill the Vorlich oilfield in the North Sea was lawful.

Lord Carloway, the Lord President of Scotland’s highest court, said in his ruling that greenhouse gas emissions caused as a result of the consumption of oil and gas by the end user were not relevant when considering the climate impact of a project. 

The appeal had been brought by campaign group Greenpeace, and the group has vowed to appeal again at the Supreme Court.

During an earlier court hearing, Roddy Dunlop QC, who represented the UK government’s Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), argued 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.”

The government also argued in court 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 - though Greenpeace  argued this was due to insufficient publicity of it.

In a written ruling published today, the Lord President dismissed the idea that the consultation was not advertised well enough, and said: “The question is whether the consumption of oil and gas by the end user, once the oil and gas have been extracted from the wells, transported, refined and sold to consumers, and then used by them are ‘direct or indirect significant effects of the relevant project’. The answer is that it is not.”

In his ruling, the Lord President also referenced the current gas price crisis and said that the UK is still reliant on oil and gas, but added, “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 [oil] consumption”, his ruling continued. “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.”

Responding to the judgement, John Sauven, Greenpeace UK executive director, said: "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.”

He added that the ruling leaves the prime minister “poised to sign off even more oil if he approves a new oil field at Cambo - against official guidance from climate experts”. 

The ruling comes weeks after the chair of advisory body the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said that he had seen no evidence which would justify the approval of proposed plans for new oil exploration in the North Sea.

BEIS has welcomed the judgement, which a spokesperson said "upholds the environmental decisions made by the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning".

“While we are working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels, there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming years as we transition to lower carbon, more secure forms of energy generated in this country.”