Climate campaigners have been given the go-ahead by the High Court in London to pursue a legal challenge against the UK government's support for North Sea oil and gas production.

The three individuals — supported by a coalition of green groups — are seeking a declaration from the court that Oil & Gas Authority’s (OGA) new strategy is unlawful because it encourages production of oil and gas that is not economic for the UK as a whole and conflicts with its legal duty to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 

In a High Court order, Mrs Justice Thornton found that the claimants had “presented an arguable case” which was “in the public interest”, and that the judicial review claim has “sufficient merit to grant permission” to proceed to a full hearing.

Defendants

The case names as defendants the OGA and UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who is responsible to parliament for the OGA and setting policy.

They defendants now have until the end of August to submit their detailed grounds of defence.

The case is expected to be heard before the end of the year with a decision in early 2022.

The case centres on around the tax breaks oil companies receive for developing big offshore fields.

The campaigners argue that the OGA’s interpretation of its legal duty to “maximise economic recovery” (MER) of oil and gas fails to take account of the billions of pounds of public money supporting the industry.

They also argue it is irrational because it will result in increased oil and gas production from the North Sea, in conflict with the UK’s legal duty to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

'Warrants full hearing'

Rowan Smith, solicitor at law firm Leigh Day, which is bringing the case on behalf of the campaigners, said: “With climate change high on the public agenda, our clients are perfectly entitled to ensure that the government is sticking to its commitments on net zero emissions.

“They believe that the OGA’s strategy unlawfully contradicts these commitments, and unlawfully allows production of oil and gas that does not benefit the UK economy as a whole. The court agrees that this is arguable and warrants a full hearing.”

The three claimants are being supported by the environmental non-profit Uplift, which in turn is co-ordinating Paid to Pollute, a new campaign supported by a coalition of environmental groups including Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth Scotland and 350.org.

One of the claimants, Mikaela Loach, a climate activist and medical student at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Legal action is a last resort. In a year when so many communities have been ravaged by heatwaves and extreme weather, the UK has to heed the IEA’s call to end investment in all new oil and gas projects that are driving this climate injustice.

"Instead of using public money to prop up the oil and gas industry, the UK should be funding a just transition that retrains workers and builds the low-carbon industries of the future.”

A revamped strategy underpinning the work of the OGA came into force on 11 February, placing legally binding obligations on UK operators to help the UK achieve a goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions.

The new strategy — called the OGA Strategy — updated the former MER UK Strategy.

It places tougher requirements on operators to reduce climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions from sources such as flaring, venting and power generation especially in new developments.

Oil services tycoon Ian Wood’s 2014 landmark review into how to prolong the life of the North Sea oil and gas sector recommended establishing the OGA to oversee a tripartite strategy with industry and government, underpinned by the strategy to maximise economic recovery of UK reserves, which became known as MER UK.