Norway's Top Court Declares Barents Licences Valid
Norway's supreme court has ruled that the government acted lawfully by awarding exploration licences in the Barents Sea, dismissing an appeal by environmentalists that sought to halt drilling in the frontier Arctic region.
Greenpeace and Norwegian environmental protection organisation Nature and Youth had launched a lawsuit that attempted to use Norway's founding principles as justification for banning oil and gas activity in the Barents. The case centres on a 2015-2016 licensing round that led to the award of 10 licences to companies including Equinor, Aker BP and Lundin Petroleum. Two lower courts earlier found the government's decision to grant the licences was valid, prompting campaigners to take the matter to the supreme court.
The appeal was rejected by eleven votes to four, the court said in a statement on December 22. The minority that supported the appeal argued that there were procedural errors in opening the Barents Sea up for exploration, as future emissions from production had not been considered.
The high-profile case is among a series of lawsuits brought by activists in Europe, seeking to end oil and gas activity through the courts rather than by lobbying governments alone. In another notable example, French local authorities and several non-governmental organisations attempted to take France's Total to court earlier this year over its what they said was its failure to address climate change. The court said it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, however.
Denmark earlier this month announced it would end oil and gas licensing rounds and halt production completely by 2050, putting pressure on its North Sea neighbours to take similar steps. The UK in September launched a review of its licensing policy to assess whether it is in line with its climate ambitions.
"The verdict is important because it supports a long-standing Norwegian tradition where difficult political issues are assessed, debated and finally considered by elected representatives in the parliament," Norwegian petroleum and energy minister Tina Bru commented on the ruling.
Greenpeace Norway said it was considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Barents Sea has been the main focus in recent years of Norway's numbered rounds, which offer rights to acreage in less explored areas. But development in the region has largely failed to live up to the initial hype. It has been over 35 years since the first Barents Sea discovery, the Equinor-operated Snohvit field, was made. But Snohvit and the Eni-operated Goliat oilfield are still the only projects to have entered production.
Equinor, Lundin and others have drilled a series of dry wells in the Barents Sea this year, further weakening prospects. However, the government is hoping to support further exploration with its 25th offshore licensing round, which was launched in November and offers 135 blocks in nine frontier zones, including eight in the Barents Sea.