Campaigners have written to the UK Government and regulators threatening to launch legal action should they approve development of Equinor’s Rosebank oilfield in the North Sea.
It follows a long-running deliberation process that has seen numerous political showdowns and protests by pressure groups.
Campaign group Uplift now says it has written to both Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps and the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), saying it has “strong grounds” to make the case that an approval of Rosebank “would be unlawful”.
Uplift claims there are potential failures in ensuring a “transparent and participatory” decision-making process, and that development of the project may be incompatible with the UK’s climate targets.
The group also alleges the government has potentially failed to assess the full environmental impact caused by the burning of oil produced on the field, and its wider impact on the marine environment.
In particular, the group has pointed to the project’s development plan,
This includes laying a pipeline through the Faroe-Shetland “sponge belt” – a protected area of the North Sea.
Uplift claims doing so would impact the “fragile ecosystem” of the region, affecting rare marine creatures like sea sponges and quahogs (a bivalve mollusc that lives buried in sandy seabeds all around the UK).
A spokesman for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: “The UK’s climate commitments are set in law. As a net importer of oil and gas and a fast-declining producer, new oil and gas licences simply reduce the fall in the UK supply; they do not increase it on current levels.”
Proposals for new fields are a matter for the regulators and subject to “extensive scrutiny”, he added.
Equinor, which is operator for Rosebank and a stakeholder alongside junior partner Ithaca Energy, has pushed back a final investment decision on numerous occasions.
But the Norwegian energy giant is expected to make a call this year, unlocking a promised £8.1 billion investment and more than 1,600 jobs.
Tessa Khan, climate lawyer and executive director of Uplift, said: “We have repeatedly raised concerns about the calamitous environmental impacts of Rosebank.
“This government seems determined to bury its head in the sand.
“Aside from the abundant evidence that new oil and gas projects are incompatible with a safe climate, the approach the government is taking to a decision on Rosebank gives us strong grounds to believe that an approval of the project would be unlawful.”
Ms Khan added: “Our planet can no longer sustain new oil and gas, and our broken energy system in the UK certainly can’t. Given that our addiction to fossil fuels is at the root of the energy crisis facing this country, this government should be 100% focused on ways to lower UK energy bills.
“Instead, through tax breaks, they are effectively pouring money into the coffers of oil companies Ithaca Energy and Equinor, which is majority-owned by the Norwegian state.”
Our planet can no longer sustain new oil and gas, and our broken energy system in the UK certainly can’t.”
Tessa Khan, Uplift.
NSTA has previously said it has “full confidence” in data showing the sector is “on track” to reach and possibly surpass its carbon emissions reduction target by the end of the decade.
And earlier this week Energy Security Minister Graham Stuart said that to not approve the project would make sense only in a “parallel universe”.
Meanwhile, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has warned approving the development would be a “last ditch, desperate attempt to justify propping up the fossil fuel industry”.
The government’s stance on North Sea oil and gas is facing a growing number of legal challenges.
Greenpeace is taking action over new licensing for North Sea exploration and official approval for Shell’s Jackdaw field. It is also “closely monitoring developments” for new fields including Cambo and Rosebank.