Two lawsuits challenging Norway’s control of Arctic resources may have drastic – and drastically different – impacts

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Make Norway share its oil and other natural resources in the vicinity of Svalbard, or prevent drilling altogether?

Two lawsuits now before the court are challenging Norway’s authority in far north on the same basic issue, but with drastically different goals. One by the European Union is seeking equal access to resources for all countries that have signed the Svalbard Treaty, while two environmental organizations are suing Norway’s government for allowing drilling in new areas of the Arctic.

The EU lawsuit, brought before Norwegian Supreme Court during a two-day hearing last week, is on the face of it about harvesting snow crabs after a Lithuanian ship was detained earlier this year on accusations of illegal fishing in the archipelago. The verdict, expected within two weeks, will merely determine if an appeals court ruling the vessel’s activities were indeed illegal should be upheld.

But that ruling is highly likely to affect Norway’s claim it has the right to authorize access to all seabed resources including oil in the 200-nautical-mile fisheries protection zone around Svalbard – which is widely seen as the primary motive in the case.

“A worst-case scenario would be if the Supreme Court were to decide that the Svalbard Treaty applies to the continental shelf, and that Norway would have to give the EU countries access,” Geir Ulfstein, a law professor at The University of Oslo, told High North News. “That would render Norway unable to protect its oil, which may have far-reaching economic consequences, as well as local consequences for Finnmark, given the crab-catching industry and local business.”

Representatives for the EU, which granted 20 vessels licenses to fish in the protected zone that Norway stated were invalid, said the case could end up before an international court in The Hauge if the appeals court judgement is upheld.

But no matter who ends up with oil drilling access as a result of this lawsuit, another starting this week is seeking to eliminate new exploration in Norway’s northernmost areas entirely.

Greenpeace and the Norwegian environmental organization Nature and Youth are claiming the Norwegian government’s recent awarding of new oil licenses in the Barents Sea violates the country’s constitution and agreement reached following the United Nations’ 2015 climate summit in Paris.

“At the heart of the court case is also Article 112 of the Norwegian constitution,” wrote Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace Norway, in a column for Al Jazeera. “This article explicitly grants people the right to a safe and healthy environment and also safeguards those rights for future generations. It places a duty on the Norwegian government to uphold these rights.”

The Norwegian government states the plaintiffs’ interpretation of Article 112 is too broad and rejects the claim of procedural shortcomings. Furthermore, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs might have consequences that go far beyond just the petroleum projects in Arctic waters, according to the government’s response.

The plaintiff are calling the lawsuit groundbreaking and, while such claims are common, in this case it might be an accurate characterization, wrote Richard Miline in a column for the Financial Times.

“At immediate stake are oilfields belonging to some of the biggest companies in the business such as Statoil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Lukoil, Centrica and Lundin Petroleum,” he wrote. But just as important is the symbolism of a major legal battle being fought against oil companies by litigants using the Paris agreement on climate change as well as the Norwegian constitution.

“The approach is so novel it is hard to judge its chances of success. But it is a warning to oil companies that drilling in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic is likely to become more and more controversial. That in turn may intensify questions about the desirability and profitability of drilling in the far north.”

 

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