The process to award a permit to supermajor BP to drill at its Vorlich oilfield in the North Sea has been ruled “unlawful” by a UK court following a legal challenge from environmental group Greenpeace.

BP was given the green light to drill at Vorlich, 241 kilometres east of Aberdeen, in August 2018.

However, the UK government failed at the time to officially publish BP’s permit — something it is legally required to do — which meant the permit could not be challenged by the public.

Greenpeace launched a legal bid to force the government to publish BP’s permit, so that once published, a second legal case could be brought to try to quash the permit altogether.

Greenpeace made this argument in court, challenging the government because “the public was robbed of the chance to contest the permit”.

As a result, the government has admitted it acted unlawfully in granting BP’s permit to drill for new oil in the North Sea with no public scrutiny, Greenpeace said.

The UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has now officially published BP’s permit in The Gazettes on Friday, 3 April.

Greenpeace is now able to launch a judicial review in the Scottish Courts to challenge BP’s permit on climate grounds and will seek a court order to quash the permit, it said.

John Sauven, Greenpeace UK executive director, said: “All the evidence tells us that if companies like BP keep on hunting for new oil it will drive us deeper into the climate emergency.

“Yet the government still decided to rubber-stamp BP’s request to drill for new oil, regardless of the consequences and the legality of the process.

“Greenpeace will now seek to get BP’s drilling permit quashed. BP needs to stop fuelling the climate emergency, which is threatening the safety of our planet and putting lives at risk,” Sauven said.

Upstream has asked BP to comment.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “We have put steps in place to address this procedural issue.” However, the spokesperson clarified that the claim will not lead to “a significant environmental impact” for Vorlich operations.

Vorlich protest

Last June, Greenpeace protested against BP’s drilling of the Vorlich field by blocking a Transocean-contracted oil rig for 12 days in the North Sea.

The stand-off between Greenpeace and BP delayed the journey of drilling rig Paul B Loyd Jr to the oilfield, which is said to hold 30 million barrels of oil.

BP and rig operator Transocean sought court interdicts in a bid to stop the action, but as Greenpeace activists continued their protest, Transocean launched a separate legal case.

For breaching the interdict, Transocean has been seeking hefty fines and jail sentences against Greenpeace and its executive director John Sauven.

The trial was held in Scotland in February. However, the verdict hearing has been called off and the date "discharged" until further notice. No new date has yet been fixed for the parties to reconvene.

Several hearings in Edinburgh’s Court of Session have been postponed after measures were taken to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Vorlich, a two-well development located 241 kilometres east of Aberdeen, is set be tied back to the Ithaca Energy-operated FPF-1 floating production facility, the centrepiece of the Greater Stella Area production hub.