Oceans group takes UK government to court over oil and gas licences

<span>A campaign by the Ocean Alliance Against Offshore Drilling organised by Oceana UK, which says oil and gas expansion will harm marine life.</span><span>Photograph: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock/ Oceana</span>
A campaign by the Ocean Alliance Against Offshore Drilling organised by Oceana UK, which says oil and gas expansion will harm marine life.Photograph: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock/ Oceana

A marine conservation group has initiated legal action against the UK government, claiming the Conservatives’ decision to issue North Sea oil and gas licences without taking into account their impact on the environment was unlawful.

Oceana UK, part of an international conservation organisation, said that in issuing 82 licences, Claire Coutinho, the secretary of state for energy security, and the North Sea Transition Authority, ignored advice from independent government experts about the potential effects on marine protected areas (MPAs).

The licences, issued between October 2023 and May 2024, cover 226 areas or “blocks” – a third of which overlap with MPAs. Oceana claims the assessments of the blocks – provided by an agency on behalf of the government – did not reflect the advice given by the independent government experts and so were in breach of the law.

The subsequent decision, on 3 May, to award the licences was also unlawful, for the same reason, it said.

More than 2,000 oil spills have happened in the North Sea since 2011, including 215 in MPAs, according to the investigative website, the Ferret. Marine life is at risk from routine spills, exposure to toxic chemicals and extreme noise pollution through seismic blasting connected to oil and gas activities.

Related: Save our seas: five ways to rewild and conserve the ocean

“This is not a case of misunderstanding or lack of information,” said Hugo Tagholm, the executive director of Oceana UK. “This is a deliberate choice to unlawfully ignore expert advice and jeopardise our seas, climate and future.”

Last year, Greenpeace lost a legal challenge to the UK’s oil and gas licences, after a court ruled in favour of the government, which argued it was not required to assess the “downstream” greenhouse gases produced by consuming oil and gas.

Rowan Smith, a solicitor for Leigh Day acting on behalf of Oceana, said the charity’s case is that “it is unthinkable for the government to ignore advice from its experts that condemns plans for North Sea oil and gas expansion as harmful for protected marine habitats”.

He added: “Oceana hopes the secretary of state decides not to defend this legal claim, but our client is prepared to pursue it if that becomes necessary.”

A spokesperson for the North Sea Transition Authority said: “We do not comment on potential litigation matters.”

The Department of Energy Security and Net Zero were approached for a comment.