For more than half a decade, oil has helped Norway build up a society that by most standards is one of Europe’s healthiest and wealthiest. The most common measure of how much the country has benefitted from its oil reserves is the value of the sovereign-wealth fund, created in 1990 to invest the state’s proceeds from the industry: at the end of 2021, it held more than 2 million kroner (€200,000) per person living in the country.
Despite the material benefits oil has brought with it, conservation groups have long railed that continued exploitation is unwise, though to little avail: with reserves in the North Sea, Norway’s original oil province, now in decline, Oslo is increasingly placing its hopes on the Barents Sea to keep the income flowing. To date, there is just one active field there, but Oljedirektoratet, a regulator, reckons that there are some sizeable finds to be made off Norway’s northern coast, and that, if all goes as expected, new drilling in the Barents will see Norway producing more oil than ever in 2024.
Failing to achieve their goals through reason, conservationists, led by two groups, the Norwegian chapter of Greenpeace and Natur og Ungdom, have taken to have the courts in an effort to have drilling in the Barents Sea declared unconstitutional.
The crux of their argument is that the most recent version of the Norwegian constitution makes a clean environment a human right; article 112 obliges the country to provide its current and future residents a healthy natural environment.
Nor do the two groups believe Norway can meet the provisions of the 2015 Paris agreement if it continues to drill. Norway was one of the first countries to ratify the treaty, and it is now on the hook to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses in half by 2030. Norway’s oil and gas is exported, but the damage done by the carbon pollution it creates belongs on the books in Oslo, regardless of where it is burnt, they argue. Ultimately, they say, protecting an environment locally cannot happen unless emissions are cut globally.
The case against Barents oil was first heard in 2016 and eventually made it to the supreme court, which decided at the end of 2020 that the country’s plans to continue drilling were, in fact, legal, in part because the national assembly had consented to them, and, in part, because the environmental degradation that the groups were seeking legal action against had not yet occurred.
The litigation did not stop there, however. Dissatisfied with the outcome, the two groups asked the European Court of Human Rights in June to consider whether Norway was violating the fundamental rights of its citizens by allowing new oil exploration during a time of global warming that has been caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
Greenpeace announced on Tuesday that the court had asked Norway to respond to the charges. That it appears to be considering whether to hear the case indicates not just that it takes the matter of climate degradation seriously. Issuing a decision would also allow it to weigh in on the increasing tendency by European conservancies to use national courts to force action to address rising temperatures and their impacts.
Oslo has until 13 April to present its side of the case in writing to the court. Should proceedings go ahead, the court has suggested the matter will be heard as an “impact” case, given its potential for setting a precedent throughout Europe. In the event that happens, a ruling can be expected much sooner than the six years the court generally takes to issue its decisions.
When it comes to the climate, the court’s argument seems to be that a decision delayed is an opportunity denied.
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