Greenpeace mounts legal challenge against UK government on oil threat to marine wildlife

Greenpeace is suing the UK Government for failing to protect whales, dolphins and other marine species from the impacts of oil exploration on the Atlantic Frontier. The action follows moves by the UK Government to further deregulate oil exploration.

Greenpeace lodged papers with the High Court as the first stage in its case against the UK Government over its failure to implement the European Habitats Directive before licensing for oil exploration and production in the Atlantic Frontier. The Directive sets out measures EU Member States must take to conserve threatened European species and habitats.

The legal challenge comes at the same time as the Minister for Trade and Industry John Battle held his third private meeting in as many months with representatives of the oil industry to revise oil licensing procedures to ‘ improve the attractiveness of developing the extensive reserves which remain on the UK continental shelf’.

“The Government is meant to act as custodian and police officer for our natural resources. Instead it is colluding in a smash and grab raid by the oil industry on Britain’s greatest wilderness, and failing to apply full environmental protection to the UK Atlantic Frontier,” said Peter Melchett, Executive Director Greenpeace UK.

“The Government has announced that its long term energy strategy was aimed at ‘reducing our use of fossil fuels’. However, they have also revealed ‘a package of measures to boost UK offshore oil and gas exploration’. This Government can’t both expand oil development in fragile frontiers and pretend to have a coherent approach to climate protection. Greenpeace has had to resort to court action to get the Government to take its environmental responsibilities seriously,” said Melchett.

Greenpeace has asked the High Court if it will hear the evidence on the Government’s failure to protect UK marine wildlife including whales, dolphins and coral. Lodging papers with the High Court is a first step. The High Court must now decide whether to grant Greenpeace permission for a full hearing.

Greenpeace says the UK is considered to have one of the most lax offshore oil regimes in the world. It already includes seven tax breaks that allow costs to be offset against corporation tax and ‘fast tracking’ of field development.

The Government/industry task force was set up by Peter Mandelson in November 1998 to bring Government departments and the oil and gas industry together to lower the cost of oil and gas operations and make specific recommendations on six areas including environmental regulation and licensing.

The Atlantic Frontier is possibly the most important area in Europe for whales and dolphins. The 21 species found in the area include the rare and endangered blue and fin whale. The Atlantic Frontier is likely to be a critical breeding area for these animals, and its importance as a migration route has led the area to be described as a “whale motorway”. Noise pollution from oil exploration interferes with their sonic communication system and therefore disturbs behaviour such as breeding and rearing.

Coral reefs have also been found in the very deep water of the North East Atlantic. These slow growing corals are hundreds of years old and support nearly 900 other species – a biodiversity as rich as a tropical rain forest. Their sensitivity to pollution and slow recovery rate make these reefs very susceptible to pollution from the oil industry.

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