Norway’s Supreme Court to Decide on Climate Lawsuit Challenging Offshore Arctic Oil Drilling

November 17, 2020

The Supreme Court of Norway is set to rule in a high-profile climate change lawsuit challenging the Norwegian government’s licensing of new offshore oil drilling in the fragile and rapidly warming Arctic region. The forthcoming decision from Norway’s highest court could, for the first time anywhere in the world, invalidate offshore petroleum production on climate change grounds.

Hearings before the country’s Supreme Court in the case, dubbed The People v. Arctic Oil, began on November 4 and concluded on November 12; a decision is expected within the next few months.

The fate of the climate, and millions of people across the world affected by extreme weather events, hangs in the balance of every barrel of oil we either extract, or leave in the ground. The Norwegian state has an obligation to both the Paris Agreement and the Norwegian Constitution to minimise the health and safety risks from the climate crisis on future generations,” Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway, one of the organizations challenging the oil licenses, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court now has the unique opportunity to decide over the future of new oil drilling in the middle of a climate crisis.”

Greenpeace Norway and an environmental youth-led organization called Nature and Youth (also referred to as Young Friends of the Earth Norway) sued the Norwegian government in 2016 challenging the opening of new areas of the Barents Sea to oil drilling; the hearings over the past week are the culmination of this lawsuit which has weaved its way through the courts over the past four years.

The environmental groups say the granting of new drilling licenses is incompatible with the Paris Agreement, the international accord that aims to limit global heating to under 2 degrees Celsius. Around 82 percent of the world’s fossil fuels must remain in the ground in order to reach this target, scientists have concluded.

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The environmental groups’ legal challenge also invokes a section of Norway’s constitution (Article 112) that establishes the right to a healthy environment, which must be safeguarded for future generations. The lawsuit is among the first to test this constitutional provision on the environment, approved by Norway’s Parliament in 2014.

In decisions issued by the District Court in January 2018 and the Court of Appeal in January this year, Norway’s lower courts found that Article 112 outlines a right that must be protected. But ultimately the courts concluded that the government did not violate this right by awarding new oil drilling licenses. The Court of Appeal did, however, determine that Norway is responsible for carbon emissions associated with its exported petroleum. The Norwegian government had previously denied this responsibility in court, including in a hearing before the Court of Appeal in November 2019.

Norway is one of the largest exporters of oil and gas in the world. According to a 2017 analysis from Oil Change International (based on data from Rystad Energy), Norway is the world’s seventh largest exporter of planet-warming emissions, and the country exports 10 times more emissions than it generates domestically by shipping its extract petroleum abroad.

The environmental campaigners say Norway should account for the climate pollution it ships abroad through its petroleum exports if the government takes it climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, and its constitutional obligation under Article 112, seriously.

The purpose of the Norwegian Constitution §112 is to safeguard people’s rights to a healthy environment, now and into the future. But danger can only be avoided before emission happens, when they happen it is too late,” Therese Hugstmyr Woie, head of Young Friends of the Earth Norway, said in a press release.

Most of the Norwegian oil is burned in other countries. Ignoring the responsibility for exported emissions means ignoring 95 percent of the consequences on our climate from Norwegian oil drilling,” added Greenpeace Norway’s Frode Pleym. “To disregard this is to disregard Norway’s international responsibilities and science.”

Beyond the climate and environmental consequences of continued oil drilling, a secret report withheld from the Norwegian Parliament by the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, and uncovered ahead of the Supreme Court hearing, indicated that the Barents Sea oil drilling could be unprofitable and result in a financial loss for taxpayers, as taxpayer money covers 78 percent of the costs of oil exploration in Norway. Exploration activity in the Arctic region so far has yielded few petroleum discoveries and several oil companies have already pulled out of the area.

While this profitability factor, and the government’s concealment of the report, is a consideration in the Supreme Court case, ultimately the judges are deciding on whether the Norwegian constitution’s environmental rights section can allow Norway to permit further fossil fuel production given the worsening climate crisis.

Future generations — our grandchildren — will feel the climate crisis in a completely different way than the members of the court,” Cathrine Hambro, a lawyer representing the environmental organizations, told the court during the final day of hearings. “And these grandchildren will want to know if they had a grandfather or grandmother in the Norwegian Supreme Court. I would urge you to pass a judgment that your grandchildren will be proud of.”

Main Image: Demonstration near the Norwegian parliament building in central Oslo on Nov. 2. Credit: © Johanna Hanno / Greenpeace, press use permitted

Dana Drugmund

Journalist, journeyer, eco enthusiast. VT Law School grad w/ Master's in Environmental Law & Policy.

Tags: Arctic drilling, climate change litigation, Norway