Norwegian court considers challenge to Arctic oil licenses

Norway's Supreme Court began examining Wednesday a case brought by two environmental groups seeking the cancellation of oil licenses granted by the Norwegian state in the Arctic.

Norwegian court considers challenge to Arctic oil licenses
File photo: AFP

The case is being watched closely in a country that owes its vast wealth to its abundant oil and gas reserves, as it could impact its future oil production.

Greenpeace and Natur og Ungdom have already had their complaint dismissed by two lower courts, and have appealed to Norway's highest court to cancel the Barents Sea exploration licenses granted to 13 oil companies in 2016.

They argue the concessions violate the Norwegian constitution, which since 2014 guarantees the right to a healthy environment.

They also say that new oil activities in the region would be contrary to the 2015 Paris climate accord, which seeks to limit average global warming to under two degrees Celsius.

“Opening up the Arctic for oil drilling in the time of climate emergency is unacceptable, and the Norwegian government must be held accountable,” the head of Greenpeace Norway, Frode Pleym, said in a statement.

A legal victory for the two NGOs “could outlaw new oil drilling in the Arctic and set a precedent for similar climate cases all over the world.”

Symbolically, they placed a globe carved out of ice in front of the Supreme Court building before the hearing began Wednesday — by video link, due to corona restrictions — which coincided with the formal exit of the United States from the Paris accord.

The Norwegian state has meanwhile argued that Article 112 of the constitution is not “a ban on … activities that could have negative consequences for the environment or the climate”, but rather “an obligation for authorities to take measures to remedy any negative effects.”

Despite their previous legal setbacks, the plaintiffs did win some important points in the Appeals Court ruling.

Among other things, the court ruled that CO2 emissions from Norwegian oil ought to be calculated in their totality — in other words, not just during the production phase in Norway, but also in the much more polluting phase of consumption outside Norway.

Western Europe's biggest oil and gas producer, Norway owes much of its wealth to oil and gas, enabling it to amass the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund valued at more than $1 trillion.

Meanwhile the Barents Sea, at the heart of the legal battle, has so far yielded disappointing results for oil seekers.

The Supreme Court will examine the case until November 12th, with the verdict expected several weeks later.

READ ALSO: Norway oil licensing round 'insanely irresponsible': green group

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NGOs take Norway to European Court over Arctic oil exploration

Two NGOs and six young climate activists have decided to take Norway to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to demand the cancellation of oil permits in the Arctic, Greenpeace announced on Tuesday.

NGOs take Norway to European Court over Arctic oil exploration
Northern Norway. Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash.

It’s the latest turn in a legal tussle between environmental organisations Greenpeace and Young Friends of the Earth Norway on one side and the Norwegian state on the other.

The organisations are demanding the government cancel 10 oil exploration licenses in the Barents Sea awarded in 2016, arguing it was unconstitutional.

Referring to the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the organisations claim that the oil licenses violated article 112 of Norway’s constitution, guaranteeing everyone the right to a healthy environment.”

The six activists, alongside Greenpeace Nordic and Young Friends of the Earth Norway, hope that the European Court of Human Rights will hear their case and find that Norway’s oil expansion is in breach of human rights,” Greenpeace said in a statement.

In December, Norway’s Supreme Court rejected the claim brought by the organisations, their third successive legal defeat.

READ MORE: Norway sees oil in its future despite IEA’s warnings¬†

While most of the judges on the court agreed that article 112 could be invoked if the state failed to meet its climate and environmental obligations– they did not think it was applicable in this case.

The court also held that the granting of oil permits was not contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, in part because they did not represent “a real and immediate risk” to life and physical integrity.

“The young activists and the environmental organisations argue that this judgment was flawed, as it discounted the significance of their environmental constitutional rights and did not take into account an accurate assessment of the consequences of climate change for the coming generations,” Greenpeace said.

On Friday, the Norwegian government unveiled a white paper on the country’s energy future, which still includes oil exploration despite a warning from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA recently warned that all future fossil fuel projects must be scrapped if the world is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Norwegian case is an example of a global trend in which climate activists are increasingly turning to courts to pursue their agenda.