The UK is the second largest oil and gas producer in Europe. In September, the UK government decided to approve Rosebank, the largest undeveloped oil field in the UK, located 80 miles west of Shetland. Despite opposition to Rosebank from within all major opposition parties in the UK, as well as prominent Conservative MPs, the chair of the UK Climate Change Committee, more than 200 organisations, grassroots groups and climate and marine conservation NGOs, and hundreds of climate scientists and academics, the project was given the green light.

Rosebank has the potential to produce 500m barrels of oil in its lifetime. This would create more than 200 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, or as much carbon dioxide as running 56 coal-fired power stations for a year. The developers Equinor and Ithaca Energy would receive approximately £3 billion in tax breaks, and drilling would take place in the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area (NCMPA), only 25km from an important breeding site for seabirds in the Seas off Foula Special Protected Area.

Now the #StopRosebank campaign is taking the government to court over its catastrophic decision to approve Rosebank.

The campaign believes this decision is not just morally and economically wrong, but unlawful. The government’s claim that drilling Rosebank is compatible with the UK’s obligations and a safe climate doesn’t add up.

Two separate court cases have been filed against the decision, one by Uplift, the other by Greenpeace UK, and both will be heard in the Court of Session in Edinburgh. The decision of the court will be binding on the UK government. A decision on whether the cases have permission to proceed is expected early in 2024, with a full hearing expected in Spring 2024.

The campaign groups have both applied to the Court of Session in Edinburgh for a judicial review of the decision by the energy secretary, currently Claire Coutinho, and the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), legally known as the Oil and Gas Authority, to grant consent to the project.

What the government says

As the offshore regulator, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) is responsible for reviewing applications to develop oil and gas in the North Sea and North Atlantic.

It recently granted consent for operators Equinor and Ithaca Energy to begin developing Rosebank and at the time said it was “taking net-zero considerations into account throughout the project’s lifecycle”.

Net zero, as defined by the Government, only includes the emissions generated by the machinery used to extract the oil, not those from when it is burnt after being sold. The argument is that if another country buys and burns oil from UK waters, those emissions should count as belonging to that country, as the UK would count emissions from imported diesel burnt in cars on British roads as its own. Considering that the UK government uses the veil of ‘domestic energy security’ for greenlighting these kinds of projects, both of these things can’t be simultaneously true.

Greenpeace argues that the Energy Secretary should have at least considered the “direct and indirect effects of the use of the extracted hydrocarbons on human health, the environment and climate change”, but that this was “deliberately” excluded from an environmental impact assessment.

The UK government and oil and gas companies have agreed a target of halving CO2 emissions from oil and gas production by 2030 (from 2018 levels) under the North Sea Transition Deal, which the NSTA already admitted the sector was not on course to meet. However, the CCC has called for the industry to set “more ambitious decarbonisation targets (well beyond the 50% target set out in the North Sea Transition Deal)”. 

The legal arguments

The separate cases will argue that:

  • The government has failed to assess the emissions generated from burning Rosebank’s oil
  • Rosebank is not compatible with the UK’s own plan for a safe climate
  • It’s not enough for the government to just say that it is, it needs to prove it.

Greenpeace UK’s application, filed by Harper Macleod LLP, focuses on two areas: the effect of downstream emissions from use of the oil and gas Rosebank will produce; and its impact on a marine protected area. They argue drilling and laying subsea cable will destroy habitats for sponges and other species living on the seabed, while oil contamination would affect whales and wild birds.

Greenpeace UK highlights that the Energy Secretary’s consent for Rosebank was based on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which deliberately excluded consideration of downstream emissions (aka the emissions from burning the fossil fuels once extracted from the field). It argues that the decision is invalid because “in excluding downstream emissions” the EIA did not meet the requirement to assess the “direct and indirect effects of the use of the extracted hydrocarbons on human health, the environment, and climate change.” Greenpeace UK also considers that the reason the Secretary of State gave for excluding consideration of downstream emissions was irrational, considering that burning Rosebank’s oil and gas will produce more CO2 than the annual emissions of the world’s 28 lowest-income countries combined.

Greenpeace UK also argues that Rosebank is unlawful because it breaches the Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations. There is also no evidence that Scottish Ministers were consulted about its impacts, with the government failing to give consideration to its duties under Scotland’s National Marine Plan.

In an application filed by law firm Davidson Chalmers Stewart, Uplift also claims that the decision to approve Rosebank is irrational and unlawful because the Energy Secretary failed to show how it is consistent with the UK’s legally binding target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. 

It notes that the North Sea Transition Deal is referred to in the government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan as the basis on which the sector will move towards decarbonisation. “The NSTD is an integral part of the strategy to meet the carbon budgets,” it says in its application, adding that approval of Rosebank will make it impossible to achieve the NSTD target of halving CO2 emissions from North Sea oil and gas by 2030.

Uplift also argues that the NSTA’s approval of Rosebank was procedurally unfair and irrational because it gave no reasons, let alone any rational ones, for making its decision, and specifically failed to explain how it was consistent with the NSTA’s duty to assist the Energy Secretary in meeting the net zero target. The cases challenge the complete lack of transparency from the NSTA, which leaves the public completely in the dark about the reasons for its decision.

Finally, the case states that the government has failed to adequately assess the impacts of Rosebank on Britain’s seas, including minimising the impacts on the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt.

This legal challenge against Rosebank will have significant strategic value, not just for the Stop Rosebank campaign and broader fight against North Sea oil and gas, but for environmental decision-making in the UK.  These cases also seek to raise wider public law issues and access to justice and procedural issues, to improve the levels of transparency and public participation in decision-making related to offshore oil and gas in the UK. The cases also focus on Rosebank’s upstream emissions and the development’s compatibility with the emissions reduction targets that the industry has set itself, thereby testing the integrity of targets embedded in the North Sea Transition Deal (NSTD) in court for the first time. These legal challenges will also continue to escalate the risk that Equinor, Ithaca, and the oil and gas industry more generally, perceive around Rosebank, combining with other actions and and escalating the wider political controversy around Rosebank.

Get involved

Want to support the court case? You can sign on to tell the Government that this case is also in your name.

Add your name and send a message to the government here, anyone in the world is welcome to join.

(NB: You will not be made a legal party to the case or have any financial liability)