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Government in court for ‘ignoring’ climate impact of BP oil drilling permit

Greenpeace UK is suing the government over its decision to let BP drill for oil in the North Sea.

Environmental experts are taking the government to court today over its decision to let BP drill in Vorlich oil field while “completely ignoring” the impact on the climate.

Greenpeace will bring the landmark case against ministers after they granted a permit for BP to drill for 30 million barrels of oil at the North Sea base, situated around 240km east of Aberdeen, in 2018.

It is the first legal challenge of its kind in the UK and campaigners warned it could cause “much embarrassment” for the government just weeks before Glasgow hosts the COP26 climate conference.

“It’s outrageous that the UK government routinely rubber stamps oil permits – like this one and the proposed permit for Cambo – while completely ignoring the climate impact, which causes extreme weather and deaths,” said Mel Evans, head of oil and gas at Greenpeace UK.

“We hope the judge will agree that legally this cannot be allowed to happen,” she added. “It makes no sense for the government to overlook the most harmful consequences of oil and gas when making these decisions.”

The organisation wants BP’s new permit to drill to be revoked and said the ruling, if it goes against the government, could have “huge implications” for controversial expansion plans around the Cambo oil field, which ministers have refused to rule out.

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Starting today in Scotland’s Court of Session, lawyers acting on behalf of Greenpeace will argue the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy failed in its legal duty to check how the Vorlich proposals could impact the climate.

The government is required to consider the environmental effects of oil or gas proposals before handing out permits. This must take into account not just the impacts of the project itself, but damaging emissions which will be released into the atmosphere when the fossil fuels extracted are burned later.

But the government disregards these emissions, Greenpeace said, meaning the Vorlich proposals – which the organisation estimated will be the equivalent of more than three coal plants running for one year – were given the green light without consideration for how they could speed up global warming. That is, the group said, despite the UK’s commitment to reaching net-zero by 2050.

Ministers also failed to properly consult the public on its decision to grant BP the permit for Vorlich oil field, Greenpeace said, after a public consultation was “so poorly publicised” it received no responses.

“We are two months away from hosting global climate talks, and we’re at code red for humanity,” Evans added. 

“BP’s permit must be revoked, and Cambo must be stopped. By setting a clear path to phase down oil and gas the UK must then properly support workers and communities through the energy transition.”

The government would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, but a spokesperson said: “Whilst the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels continues to fall, advice from the independent Climate Change Committee is that we cannot have a cliff-edge where oil and gas are abandoned overnight as the sector has a key role to play in our electricity supply, in providing local jobs, and in supporting the production of everyday essentials like medicines.

“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.”

The challenge will be heard in the same week research showed air pollution caused primarily by burning fossil fuels – with coal the worst culprit – is causing more early deaths globally than smoking, car accidents and HIV/Aids. 

Current air pollution levels are cutting life expectancy by 2.2 years for the average person, the University of Chicago researchers found, with the worst effects felt in India where the average person dies six years early.

Around 15 million people in the UK are regularly exposed to air pollution levels higher than what the World Health Organisation says is safe, according to the British Heart Foundation, with the Royal College of Physicians estimating that dirty air causes 40,000 early deaths per year across the country.

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