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Oceana threatens legal action over harm to UK seas from latest offshore oil and gas licensing 

Oceana UK is preparing to take the government to court over the severe threat to marine life caused by the latest licences for oil and gas exploration in UK waters.

Posted on 19 June 2024

The decision to issue the new licences was unlawful on several grounds, says the charity, 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 claims.   

Represented by the environment team at law firm Leigh Day, Oceana UK has written to Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho, setting out its concerns and signalling the start of the judicial review process.   

Some 82 licences for exploratory oil and gas drilling operations were issued by NSTA between October 2023 and May 2024. The licences cover 226 areas (blocks), and over a third overlap with MPAs.   

Oceana UK says the ‘Appropriate Assessments’ for the blocks, published by the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED) for the Secretary of State under the Habitat Regulations 2017, were unlawful.   

It says the NSTA decision on 3 May 2024 to award Tranche 3 licences was also unlawful, on the same basis.   

Oceana UK was one of the many bodies to respond after OPRED published draft Appropriate Assessments in July 2023. These aimed to explain how oil and gas activities could adversely impact the conservation objectives of the sites.   

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Natural England responded with advice. The JNCC said it could not conclude that the licensing round would have no adverse effect on Marine Protected Areas until its advice was addressed.   

Like JNCC and Natural England, Oceana 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, including a commitment to achieve Good Environmental Status in all seas by 2042.    

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

Hugo Tagholm, Executive Director of 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.”  

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith, working with solicitor Carol Day, 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.” 

According to case law from the Court of Justice of the European Union, which still applies to the UK, an Appropriate Assessment must “contain complete, precise and definitive findings and conclusions capable of removing all reasonable scientific doubt as to the effects of the work proposed on the protected site concerned”.

When OPRED published its final assessments on 3 May 2024, the documents suggested the latest tranche of licences would have no adverse effect on MPAs, which Oceana UK says does not reflect advice provided by the JNCC.  

In its pre-action protocol letter, Oceana UK says the Secretary of State has ignored the advice of its statutory advisors on the central issue of whether there is no reasonable doubt about adverse effects on the relevant sites and has failed to provide cogent reasons for ignoring the advice.

Those failures mean the Secretary of State’s reliance on the Appropriate Assessments is unlawful and the NSTA’s decision to award the licences, based on these assessments, is also unlawful.  

Oceana UK’s grounds for judicial review would be:   

  • Failure to consider the impact of accidents, which is contrary to the requirements of the Habitats regime and contrary to the duty to take reasonable steps to obtain the relevant information in order to reach a rational decision (the Tameside duty);   
  • Failure to consider the ongoing impact of climate change on the relevant marine sites and environment, again, contrary to the requirements of the Habitats Regulations and the Tameside duty;   
  • A flawed assumption that only 50% of the licensed drilling will actually take place;  
  • Failure to adequately assess the cumulative impacts of the licensed activity on the relevant sites; and  
  • Failure to consider or pay due regard to the advice of the JNCC in relation to the matters raised by a number of the above points.   

Leigh Day has instructed Kate Cook and Emma Foubister at Matrix chambers.   

Rowan Smith
Climate change Environment Human rights Judicial review Planning Wildlife

Rowan Smith

Rowan Smith is a senior associate solicitor in the human rights department.

Carol Day
Environment Judicial review Planning Wildlife

Carol Day

Carol founded the firm's environmental litigation service in 2013

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