Oceana gears up for legal action against goverment over oil and gas licences

A marine conservation charity is gearing up to take legal action against the government over the “severe threat” to marine life caused by it issuing North Sea oil and gas licences.

Oceana UK says the decision by the government was “unlawful”.

The charity says: “The decision to issue the new licences was unlawful on several grounds including a failure to consider the extreme impacts of both accidental oil spills and the climate crisis on marine life.

“In addition, both the secretary of state for energy security and net zero and the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) ignored advice from independent government experts about the potential effect on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).”

Oceana UK, which is represented by the environment team at law firm Leigh Day, has written to energy secretary Claire Coutinho, setting out its concerns and signalling the start of the judicial review process. 

Over 80 licences for oil and gas drilling operations were issued between October 2023 and May 2024 and cover 226 areas or “blocks”, a third of which overlap with MPAs. 

The charity says a review of the blocks, issued by an agency on behalf of the government, did not reflect the advice given by independent government experts, so flouted the law.

Oceana UK said that allowing the oil and gas operation to go ahead inside and alongside MPAs would make it impossible for the government to achieve marine protection targets for decades.

It also said many designated sites and features were already in an unfavourable condition due to the impacts of existing and agreed infrastructure, and further large-scale development would risk failing to achieve conservation objectives. 

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It strongly advised that no new oil and gas infrastructure was placed within any MPA which had a restoration or recovery objective. 

Oceana UK said: “This is not a case of misunderstanding or lack of information. This is a deliberate choice to unlawfully ignore expert advice and jeopardise our seas, climate and future.   

“The truth is, chronic oil spills are already polluting UK seas. Seismic blasting is deafening whales. Drilling is destroying reefs. The fact that this damage and destruction is out of public view doesn’t make it any less severe. 

 “The vital opportunity with these latest licences is that it is not too late. Government can take a long, hard look at these decisions and choose instead to end new oil and gas, to protect the ocean, and to invest in a just transition to nature-positive renewables and a future worth having.”

Oceana UK executive director Hugo Tagholm said: “In a climate emergency, Oceana says it is unthinkable for the Government to ignore advice from its experts that condemns plans for North Sea oil and gas expansion as harmful for protected marine habitats, particularly when the Secretary of State has completely failed to consider the knock-on climate change effect that further fossil fuel extraction will have on our seas.

“Oceana hopes the Secretary of State decides not to defend this legal claim, but our client is prepared to pursue it if that becomes necessary.”

Circular economyClimate crisisEnergyInnovationNature and the environmentNet zero

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