The environmental group has launched a judicial review of what it describes as the UK Government’s refusal to apply the EU Habitats Directive up to 200 nautical miles from the UK coast. Greenpeace points out that the Government claims fisheries and mineral rights over the same area.

If Greenpeace is successful, the UK could be forced to implement the Habitats Directive up to 200 miles from the coast. This would entail carrying out strict surveys of marine life leading to the introduction of Special Areas of Conservation.

Greenpeace is supported by all the major British wildlife groups, including the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the Environmental Investigations Agency and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Ten oil companies – including Esso, Texaco and Mobil – are supporting the Government.

The Government’s main legal argument is that Greenpeace delayed in applying for a judicial review of its oil licensing on the Atlantic Frontier and that the environmental group should have made its application some time over the last five years.

Greenpeace’s QC, Nigel Plemming QC, says that if this defence is accepted it could mean that no person or organisation (including Greenpeace) would ever be able to challenge any Government decision on offshore oil and gas exploration or any other offshore activities to which the EU Habitats Directive applies, regardless of the merits of the case.

Plemming, told the High Court: “The Government is attempting to deny Greenpeace access to the UK courts when it has substantial evidence to demonstrate that the UK Government has failed, and continues to fail, to implement an important act of Community law for environmental protection, which establishes rights enforceable by individuals and by associations. Such a conclusion would offend articles 6 and 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights”.

He added that the Government was abusing the legal process by trying to challenge a decision made by Justice Laws in 1997, at a previous hearing between the Government and Greenpeace. Laws made it clear that Greenpeace was entitled to wait until it was clear what blocks of sea were being offered for oil exploration before challenging the Governments decision.

A spokesman for the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry told edie: “Greenpeace is trying to secure publicity and profile through a legal technicality. They want the Habitats Directive implemented over a wider area than at present. We say that the UK’s current environmental licensing and protection regime is amongst the strictest in the world and is at least as effective as the Habitats Directive. Greenpeace want us to throw away 20 years worth of regulations and send several civil servants off into a darkened room to produce several tons of timber worth of new regulations based on the Habitats Directive. That seems counter productive in environmental terms.”

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