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Environmental groups are taking Norway to court over oil drilling in the Arctic

Norway
26-06-2017-arctic-oil-b-590.jpg

An Arctic oil drilling platform off the Alaskan coast. © US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

It’s against the Constitution, and means Norway will not respect the Paris Agreement, Tina Andersen Vågenes.

Norway has shocked environmental groups opening up a record number of blocks in the Arctic for oil exploration – but environmentalists are already fighting back.

On Wednesday 21 June, Norway’s oil ministry offered 93 new blocks in the Barents Sea, with a deadline for applications in November.

The decision comes roughly one year after the Norwegian government gave out new drilling licences in the Arctic for the first time in 20 years: on 18 May 2016, it gave out licenses to 13 companies for 40 blocks in total.

Soon after the decision to offer that round of licenses, we – Greenpeace Norway and Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Natur og Ungdom) – have filed a lawsuit against the government. Here’s why.

Environmental risk

Opening new oil fields in areas partly covered by ice will be a threat for biodiversity – and lead to increased emissions of climate gases.

When the Norwegian government opened up new oil drilling licences in the Arctic in 2016, it was done against explicit advice from climate and marine researchers, including the Polar Institute and the Institute of Marine research.

The vulnerable areas of the Arctic, like the Barents Sea, are home to both complex ecosystems and challenging climatic conditions. Some areas went up to ‘Iskanten’ (the marginal ice zone), the area of transition between the open ocean and sea ice. It is a part of the ice cover rich in biodiversity, and close enough to the open ocean that any changes will have repercussions on it.

The exact location of the marginal ice zone fluctuates according to the seasons, but it is already creeping further north due to climate change.

Paris agreement

The new licenses for oil exploration undermine Norway’s commitment to the 2015 Paris agreement.

The first 13 were issued in 2016, just a few weeks after the country had ratified the Agreement and pledged to work for large emission cuts in the next decades.

The Paris Agreement is a voluntary agreement aiming to limit global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It does not explicitly limit fossil fuel production, but burning coal, oil and gas is the biggest driver of global warming. A paper from the University College London states that all Arctic oil must be kept underground, to have a chance of keeping global warming under 2 degrees. Most recently, a report by Oil Change International found that mines and rigs already operating will blow the 2C carbon budget, if fully exploited.

Including expected emissions from new oil fields in the Arctic, emissions will not go down until after 2030: if Norway continues to drill for oil, climate justice will be a distant dream for lower-income countries with lower emissions.

Constitution

According to Greenpeace Norway and Young Friends of the Earth Norway, the opening up of new licenses to drill for oil in the Arctic also violates the Norwegian Constitution, and the groups have filed a lawsuit against the Norwegian government on those grounds.

Article 112 of the constitution, added in 2014, has been named the ‘Environmental Paragraph’, as it seeks to protect current and future citizens’ right to a healthy and clean environment and sound resource management.

The article is also clear on responsibility: the state is obligated to implement action that will ensure these rights are fulfilled.

It reads: ‘Every person has the right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained. (...) The authorities of the state shall take measures for the implementation of these principles.’

The case builds on the belief that as drilling for Arctic oil in all likelihood will lead to more climate change, it will affect the constitutional right of future generations.

The government has given an official answer to the lawsuit, arguing that Arctic oil is Norway’s best contribution to fight climate change.

However, the paragraph has never been tried in court before, so the outcome of the lawsuit is unclear. Norwegian Supreme Court judge Pål Lorentzen is a firm supporter of the case, and argues that it will be extremely important that the government meets this seriously. On the other hand, environmental lawsuits have historically been unsuccessful in Norway.

People have responded with a lot of support for the case. A crowdfunding campaign has raised over half a million NOK (about US$59,000) to foot the legal bills.

A climate lawsuit won’t change everything, even if the NGOs win. Yet, it can be a very important tool to mobilize people, create awareness and tell the fossil industry that the people will continue to fight against Arctic oil.

It has a chance of raising some important questions about Norwegian oil drilling in the Arctic and its impacts on global climate change.

The first hearing will take place on 21 November 2017 at Oslo District Court. Campaigners expect the case to go through to the Court of Appeal, and most likely even to the Supreme Court.

Tina Andersen Vågenes is a campaigner with Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Natur og Ungdom).