NORWAY’S SUPREME COURT OKS ARCTIC OIL DRILLING: Environmental organizations challenging drilling due to climate impact lose so-called ‘lawsuit of the century’ in 11-4 decision


A landmark ruling by Norway’s Supreme Court means oil drilling up to the edge of the marine boundary surrounding Svalbard will be legally valid during the coming years and decades, after four environmental organizations lost a so-called “lawsuit of the century” challenging the country’s drilling plans due to their harmful climate impacts.

Greenpeace and the other plaintiffs argued the drilling violates the Norwegian Constitution’s clause that citizens – including future generations – have the right to a secure climate. But in a decisive 11-4 decision Tuesday upholding lower court rulings, the supreme court stated a “very high” threshold must be met in order to invalidate a Parliament-approved action under the clause which the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate for several reasons – including the Norwegian government’s climate-related actions considered as a whole.

“The Supreme Court pointed out that a number of general and specific measures have been implemented (by Norway) to reduce national emissions of greenhouse gases – including a CO2 tax, investment in renewable energy, support for technology for carbon capture and storage, support for green technology and green conversion otherwise, and not least adherence to the EU quota system,” a summary of the ruling states. Also, “there is a strict safeguarding regime on the Norwegian shelf that is intended to protect against local environmental damage.”

The ruling – much like a high-profile case decided last year involving a challenge by the EU to Norway’s rights to allocate crab fishing rights, which are the same rights governing oil – was in line with the expectations of experts analyzing the lawsuit.

Environmental organizations, numerous science researchers and others have been highly critical of Norway’s openly ambitious plans to expand oil exploration ever-further north for the foreseeable future, especially as climate change makes access and drilling conditions more favorable. Among the potential problems frequently mentioned are a spill could result in oil quickly reaching Svalbard’s shores and lingering for long periods, and infrastructure such as aircraft facilities built in remote areas such as Bjørnøya solely for the purpose of monitoring drilling activity and responding to emergencies.

“We are outraged with this judgment, which leaves youth and future generations without Constitutional protection,” Therese Hugstmyr Woie,  head of Young Friends of the Earth Norway, said in a prepared statement. “The Supreme Court chooses loyalty to Norwegian oil over our rights to a liveable future. The youth in Norway fighting against Arctic oil drilling are used to being disappointed, and we will continue our fight. In the streets, in voting booths and in the courts if needed.”

The lawsuit challenged 10 oil production licenses in the Barents Sea awarded by Norway in 2016, with dozens of additional leases largely to the north right up to the legal boundary of Svalbard awarded since.

While the majority of the Supreme Court ruled the 2016 leases didn’t violate any legal provisions beyond the climate one and there were no procedural errors, the dissenting four judges stated procedural errors were made during the opening of the southeast portion of the Barents Sea in 2013 to the southeast in 2013.

“Possible future global emissions of greenhouse gases were not considered in the impact assessment that was the basis for the opening,” the ruling summary notes. “In their view, this has resulted in a need to reconsider the reopening of the Barents Sea in the southeast based on a new impact assessment.”