UK Government to face legal challenge over Jackdaw oil and gas field approval

Greenpeace has confirmed plans to take the UK Government to court over its decision to approve the Jackdaw oil and gas field, claiming that the project spearheaded by Shell would undermine national and international climate targets, while doing little to reduce energy costs for British billpayers.

UK Government to face legal challenge over Jackdaw oil and gas field approval

Pictured: The Shearwater platform operated in the North Sea by Shell. Image: Stuart Conway for Shell.

The UK Government granted final regulatory approval for the project in early June, just before the long weekend marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Greenpeace stated that it would consider a legal challenge within 24 hours, and has now confirmed that it plans to take the Government to court. It will state that the Government is committing a “scandal”, failing in its legal duty to assess the environmental impact of the project in full, including the burning of the extracted fossil fuels.

Greenpeace will allege, using figures included in Shell’s own planning and forecasting documents, that Jackdaw’s reserves would generate more than 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – more than the annual national emissions of Ghana in 2020.  This would make the UK’s net-zero transition longer and more costly. Peak production from the field is estimated at 40,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Regulator OPRED rejected Shell’s 2021 application to extract gas from Jackdaw on climate grounds. OPRED then changed its stance after Shell provided more information about the project’s potential impacts and the Government attached more environmental conditions to the licence under the‘climate stress test’ regime for oil and gas. Greenpeace will argue that the project will not be subjected to the full extent of the stress tests and highlight how experts including the UK’s own Climate Change Committee (CCC) have pointed out loopholes in the regime.

The campaign group will also highlight the net-zero by 2050 scenario set out by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which involves no expanded fossil fuel extraction beyond 2021 – particularly in developed nations. Another key resource is the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which concludes that the global development pipeline for fossil fuels must be drastically scaled back to meet the Paris Agreement.

An original licence was granted for the Jackdaw project, off the coast of Aberdeen, in 1970, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) stated in confirming its decision in June. It also insisted that the final approval decision rested with the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) rather than itself, but refused to intervene with the OGA process, as it has powers to.

Since the decision was made, BEIS Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has repeatedly used the narrative of the energy price crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine resulting in a stronger case for increasing domestic fossil fuel production, for use domestically and abroad in nations looking to end Russian imports. This line of thought is clear to see in the measures included in the Energy Security Strategy that was first published in April.

Greenpeace will argue that, because gas is an internationally traded commodity, it will be sold abroad where demand and bids are highest. There is no guarantee of the UK keeping gas extracted from the North Sea and/or choosing where exports go. As such, Greenpeace campaigner Lauren MacDonald stated, the project will “do nothing to address the energy price crisis, while contributing to the climate crisis”.

She said: “Our dependence on fossil fuels is at the root of both crises, yet the Government continues to try and plough ahead with new oil and gas projects. This is why we need legal action. As long as the government carries on down this path – ignoring the pressing need to insulate homes and rollout cheaper renewables – they will face backlash and legal challenges.”

Shell has attempted to allay criticisms by publishing a statement reading: “Projects like Jackdaw will help ensure the overall decline in UK North Sea production is gradual rather than too steep, matching a gradual drop in hydrocarbon demand as the energy transition takes place. Gas from the Jackdaw field will come ashore at St Fergus, where Shell is involved in the development of the Acorn Carbon Capture and Storage project, which could sequester CO2 from industrial clusters in Scotland, the UK and northern Europe. The Acorn project could also reform natural gas into low-carbon hydrogen, by capturing and storing the CO2.”

Court case after court case?

Commentators believe the legal challenge could set a precedent, should the courts side with Greenpeace. Carbon Brief wrote in February that there are 46 oil and gas fields in the pipeline for the UK, all set to avoid most of the requirements of ‘climate stress tests’. Halting these projects, which will have approval decisions considered by the end of 2025, could change the state of the net-zero transition nationally and internationally.

The Energy Security Strategy saw the Government outlining plans for a new licencing round for oil and gas fields, scheduled for this Autumn. There will be no changes to the stress tests regime ahead of this round. At least six projects are expected to receive approval, and OGUK stated last year its intention to put forward up to 18 projects.

One project which has already been put on pause is the Cambo oil field – although this was due to financial complications rather than legal challenges. Siccar Point put plans for the project on hold after Shell, which had a 30% stake, stated its intention to pull out in December 2021. The firm has since applied to extend licences for the project and been bought out by Ithica Energy, so the future of the project is very much undecided. As noted above, the Government and interested bodies in the private sector may use the war and energy security narrative to make a fresh push for the project.

The news about Jackdaw comes shortly after the High Court ruled that the UK Government’s Net-Zero Strategy is unlawful and ordered policymakers to provide additional details on cutting emissions, sector-by-sector, in a manner compatible with the UK’s 2050 climate goal and interim carbon budgets.

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