Above Photo: Greenpeace activists hold banners during a protest next to Statoil’s Songa Enabler oil rig in the Barents sea, Norway, July 2017. Photograph: Will Rose/Greenpeace/Reuters
The Norwegian government is being sued by climate activists over a decision to open up areas of the Arctic Ocean for oil exploration, a move they say endangers the lives of existing and future generations.
The plaintiffs, led by environmental organisations Greenpeace and Youth and Nature, will on Tuesday claim that the Norwegian government has violated a constitutional environmental law which guarantees citizens’ rights to a healthy environment.
The law, known as Section 112, states: “Everyone has the right to an environment that safeguards their health and to nature where production ability and diversity are preserved. Natural resources must be managed from a long-term and versatile consideration which also upholds this right for future generations.”
“We have for years tried to stop the expansion of Norway’s oil extraction, from both local and global considerations,” said Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace Norway. “As far as granting concessions for the Arctic is concerned, not only have our objections been ignored and overrun, but the state has also paid no heed to the guidelines from their own appointed advisers, such as the polar institute and the environment agency, who both recommended that the majority of concessions in this area be turned down.”
In fighting the case, Greenpeace is relying on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which states that to meet the goals set out in the 2015 Paris accord, oil production must be wound down, not escalated. The state rejects this argument, claiming that all their preliminary assessments of the potential environmental impact have been conducted satisfactorily.
But according to supreme court attorney Pål W Lorentzen, who heads environmental group Norsk Klimastiftelsen, “the government has already violated Section 112 by granting concessions which will make it impossible for the country to meet the targets agreed upon in the Paris accord. For every intervention [in terms of oil exploration], thorough pre-assessments and evaluations must be carried out and made public, and the state has failed on both accounts,” he said.
The state is expected to focus on the interpretation of the law, stating in its closing submission that “Section 112 has not been formulated to provide individual rights in the traditional sense. Instead, the first and second paragraphs express societal aims with regard to environment, conservation of nature and management of natural resources … Norway does not have a legal responsibility for emissions from its oil and gas exports.”
Norway’s attorney-general, Fredrik Sejersted, told the Guardian: “The state considers this case important in the sense of it concerning important societal issues and the interpretation of an important constitutional law paragraph
“At the same time, we don’t regard it as particularly challenging in legal terms, as in our opinion it is pretty clear that the Norwegian authorities have fulfilled all their obligations to the constitution, and that Norway has complied with and will continue to comply with all their international environmental and climate obligations.”
The case is brought not only on the grounds of harm inflicted on the local environment, but on the contribution any oil extraction will make to global warming. Norway is already the seventh largest CO2 emission exporter in the world, according to a recent report.
Gulowsen believes Greenpeace’s case is strong. “We were motivated by climate litigation in countries such as the Netherlands, the US, Switzerland and New Zealand that has shown that when the gulf between science and political decisions becomes too wide, the courts play an increasingly important part in taking charge of the long-term perspectives of societal development,” he said
“In times when politicians are wavering and non-committal, it demands courage from the courts to overrule political decisions in order to safeguard our future.”
“Our present government seems to be obsessed with giving the oil industry free pickings from the top shelf, conveniently ignoring any connection between the 2015 Paris accord which the authorities were so proud of being one of the first signees to, and the actual oil policy that is being executed,” said Gulowsen.
The case is being heard at Oslo district court, and is scheduled to last two weeks.