The Norwegian government is turning to the Court of Appeal seeking to reverse a landmark ruling that invalidated the State’s approvals of three new oil and gas fields in the North Sea on climate grounds. The verdict, delivered by the Oslo District Court on January 18, 2024, halted any further permitting or development of the offshore fields.
That court-imposed order, called an injunction, remains in effect regardless of the government’s attempt to challenge it, according to Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Nordic, which brought the climate lawsuit against the State along with Natur og Ungdom (Young Friends of the Earth Norway).
The environmental groups successfully argued that the State’s approvals of the new oil fields, called Breidablikk, Yggdrasil, and Tyrving, did not adequately account for their expected contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions as required under Norwegian and EU law. The groups pointed to the Norwegian Supreme Court’s finding in a prior version of this litigation that Norway is obligated to consider the full climate impact of oil and gas projects prior to their approval. That includes the emissions generated when the oil is combusted, even if it happens outside Norway’s borders. In approving the North Sea fields, the government dismissed or downplayed the climate impact, the district court found. Such a deficient environmental assessment violates Article 112 of the Norwegian constitution and the EU Project Directive, according to the verdict.
“This is the first win on oil for environmental organisations against the petrostate Norway,” Klimentina Radkova, climate and energy advisor and legal campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic, said via email. “It also creates precedent for other European countries, by way of the Project Directive.” The EU Project Directive mandates that EU member states take climate impacts into consideration in environmental impact assessments.
Climate campaigners beyond Norway may seek to build upon the Greenpeace court win in Oslo as they challenge government-sanctioned fossil fuel expansion projects. While the UK is not subject to the EU Project Directive, climate lawyers there are hopeful they can convince courts that opening up new oil fields in the North Sea, like the Rosebank field, is absurd and unlawful in the midst of a climate emergency driven largely by fossil fuels. The UK also disregards combustion emissions in allowing these new projects to move forward. As Tessa Khan, a lawyer and executive director of the climate organization Uplift, writes in The Guardian: “The judgment in Norway has set an example that provides fertile ground for the government’s position to be challenged in UK courts.”
It will now be up to the Court of Appeal in Norway to decide whether or not to uphold this judgment. “We can confirm that we are appealing the verdict,” Stine Grimsrud, spokesperson for the Norwegian Ministry of Energy, said via email.
In a press release commenting on its decision to appeal, the Ministry said it disagrees with the district court’s finding of “procedural errors” in the fields’ approvals. According to the Ministry, it has complied with the Supreme Court’s ruling around consideration of a petroleum project’s full climate impact, claiming, “we now also assess combustion emissions when processing each individual development plan.” The Ministry says that going forward, it will be making adjustments in its assessment process for combustion emissions in order to be more inclusive.
Norway’s Ministry of Energy also defended its continued support for oil and gas extraction. “The judgment from the Oslo district court is about the case management process related to new development projects, not whether we should have oil and gas production on the Norwegian continental shelf or not. We shall still have that. The government will further develop, not liquidate, the petroleum sector,” Energy Minister Terje Aasland said in the press release.
Leaders with Greenpeace Nordic and Natur og Ungdom say they are confident that their case will survive a challenge on appeal.
“We have a very strong case and are ready to fight for this on behalf of future and current generations,” Pleym said.
“We are disappointed that the State does not want to acknowledge their legally bound duty to assess the climate impacts of Norwegian oil and gas, but we are convinced that the Court of Appeal will uphold the verdict from Oslo District Court, Gytis Blaževičius, head of Natur og Ungdom, added.
For now, the district court’s ruling remains in effect and demonstrates that courts can play a critical role in holding governments accountable in the context of the climate emergency.
“It is another case in a long line of climate litigation which has been successful in holding authorities accountable,” Radkova said, “and it shows that no one is above the law and we as citizens have mechanisms in place which safeguard our rights.”
*Updated February 1, 2024 with comments from Norway's Ministry of Energy