Greenpeace lawyers have threatened the UK government with legal action over deep sea drilling in British waters, as four Greenpeace climbers who spent nearly 48 hrs in sub zero temperatures on an Arctic oil rig ended their occupation early this morning.
Freezing conditions and strong winds forced the climbers to abandon plans to spend a third day in tents suspended from ropes attached to the underside of the rig, owned by British company Cairn Energy.
The environmental group also said it has delivered a formal ‘letter before action’ to the coalition government, which accuses ministers of granting licences for new deep sea drilling before the causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion have been properly established.
Today’s news will alarm the oil industry due to Greenpeace’s strong record in similar campaigns - on nuclear power and the third runway at Heathrow - where a combination of high profile direct action and robust legal challenges have led to significant delays or even cancellations for the companies involved.
Greenpeace Executive Director John Sauven, who is in contact with the ship, said: ‘Our climbers have stopped this rig from drilling in the fragile Arctic for two days, and this is just the start of a long campaign. The world needs to go beyond oil, but here in the UK the Government is waving through applications for new drilling as if the Deepwater Horizon explosion never happened.’
‘The Gulf of Mexico disaster was a game changer, so ministers should suspend new deep water licences and companies like Cairn Energy must stop dangerous drilling in the Arctic and start investing in clean alternatives instead.’
As storms closed in this morning Greenpeace activists were forced to climb onto the gantry of the oil platform, where they were arrested at around 1am local time.
By stopping the rig drilling for two days, Greenpeace hopes that Cairn Energy will now struggle to meet a tight deadline to complete the exploration before winter ice conditions force it to abandon the search for oil off Greenland until next year.
In the legal letter, Greenpeace asks the Government for an undertaking that it will stop the UK licensing process for new offshore drilling (exploration and production) and consult fully on the scope of a new, full environmental assessment in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Sauven continued: ‘It is our view that for the government to carry on licensing for new offshore drilling without a new environmental assessment is in breach of European and UK environmental law, and is irrational.’
The legal letter cites a series of UK environmental assessments for offshore drilling, dated from the months before the Deepwater accident, including one which concedes that ‘the feasibility of containment and recovery [of oil] in offshore locations is generally considered low in the UK’, and which admits that ‘there is currently no capacity for large scale containment and recovery in the offshore UKCS [UK Continental Shelf].’
The government concedes that the area to the West of Shetland, where much of the proposed deep sea drilling would take place, is a ‘particularly challenging location’ and yet insists that ‘no depth constraints [for drilling] are envisaged.’
It was recently reported that BP plans to drill its deepest UK well to date off the West coast of Scotland, possibly as early as October this year.
The government has 14 days within which to respond to Greenpeace’s letter. If there is no undertaking then Greenpeace will claim for judicial review of the government’s decision.