Norway oil leases challenged by environmental groupsNorway promises emissions reductions, but is also expanding its oil drilling. Photo credit: L.C. Nøttaasen via Flickr

By Ucilia Wang

An unusual legal fight will soon get its first hearing in Norway, as two environmental groups seek to curb oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean and press a larger question about the role of government in protecting its citizens from the impacts of climate change.

The case, brought by the environmental groups Greenpeace and Nature and Youth will get its first hearing on Nov. 14 in the Oslo District Court. The plaintiffs are asking the court to invalidate 10 licenses granted by the government to 13 companies last year that opened up a new section of the Arctic to oil exploration.

The litigation cites a section of Norway’s Constitution that guarantees the right to a healthy environment. The two environmental groups contend that the government failed to protect its citizens’ rights when it granted the permits that in effect created new sources of greenhouse gas emissions, even though the fuel will be burned and those emissions will take place beyond Norway.

Science shows that greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are collectively warming the Earth’s temperature and contributing to bigger hurricanes and other natural disasters as well as the spread of infectious diseases in regions previously too cold for their carriers to thrive.

“This is no longer the time when they could just continue to drill, especially in this super vulnerable environment,” said Michelle Jonker-Argueta, legal counsel for campaigns and actions at Greenpeace.

Norway’s ratification of the Paris agreement last year further compels the government to consider climate change risks in making decisions such as issuing oil drilling permits, Jonker-Argueta said. The Ministry of Petroleum and Energy didn’t appear to have taken climate change into consideration during the licensing review, she added.

In a response to the lawsuit that it filed in court, the ministry said it didn’t violate the Constitution or the government’s commitment to the Paris agreement because it had carried out thorough environmental assessments before granting the permits. It added that the Paris agreement calls for reducing emissions generated within the country, not overseas.

“The 23rd licensing round was undertaken in accordance with applicable laws and regulations, in line with long established practice and on the basis of a democratic process involving all interested parties, thus ensuring that all relevant issues and considerations were taken into account,” the ministry said in a statement.

The lawsuit highlights once again Norway’s conflicting national identity as a progressive country that promotes strong environmental protection and one of the world’s largest oil producing countries. It has built the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, which surpassed $1 trillion, by investing its oil and gas revenues.

Last year, the parliament voted for a plan to cut domestic emissions and buy carbon offsets abroad so that it could become carbon neutral by 2030.

A win by Greenpeace and Nature and Youth could inspire more suits to nudge the government to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels for revenues. But convincing the court that issuing oil drilling permits could violate human rights won’t be easy. No regulation or case law defines what makes up a healthy environment under the Constitution, Jonker-Argueta said.

While the case doesn’t target the companies who secured the permits, it still serves as a warning to them, said Kristin Casper, an attorney for Greenpeace’s Climate Justice and Liability Project.

“The legal team in Norway has found something that should send the chill down the spines of companies seeking new licenses to drill or mine,” Casper said. “Many countries have enshrined in their constitutions the rights to a healthy environment. When you pair it with the Paris agreement, it sets a new standard of care for the government.”

Elsewhere, fossil fuel companies are increasingly the targets of climate lawsuits. In Germany, RWE found itself a surprise defendant when a mountain guide from Peru sued the power company in 2015 for allegedly causing a glacier melt that raised the level of a nearby lake and increased the likelihood of devastating floods to the guide’s home and his city of more than 120,000 people.

The guide, Saul Luciano Lliuya, is asking the court to award him 17,000 Euros ($20,000)  to help the local authority build a dam for flood control, said Julia Grimm, policy advisor for climate finance at Germanwatch, a nonprofit that is helping Lliuya publicize his case.

The money amounts to roughly 0.5 percent of the project’s cost and corresponds with a study’s estimate that RWE, Germany’s largest electricity producer,  has historically contributed to nearly 0.5 percent of all manmade emissions worldwide since the start of the industrial age.  

The case is unusual for targeting only one company — and a user of coal and gas. Other cases, in the U.S. and elsewhere, are seeking to hold a group of major fossil fuel producers accountable.

RWE, which doesn’t do business in Peru, claims there’s no clear evidence that it caused a glacier to melt in another part of the world. RWE also points out that it’s taken actions to reduce its emissions, from building more efficient power plants to investing in renewable energy generation.

“According to current law, individual issuers of CO2 are not liable for global events such as climate change,” said Regina Wolter, an RWE spokeswoman, in an email. “However, due to the large number of global emissions of greenhouse gases from both natural and anthropogenic sources and the complexity of the climate and its natural variability, it is not possible to assign specific impacts of climate change to a single issuer.”

A district court sided with the company and dismissed the suit last December. Lliuya then won an appeal to keep the case alive. A higher court is scheduled to hear the case on Nov. 13.

A win for Lliuya will not only secure funding for the dam, but it will also prompt power companies and the government to support new business models and policies that will reduce their exposure to climate lawsuits, Grimm said.

“We need to use climate lawsuits as a tool to find political solutions, such as a price for carbon,” Grimm said. “Right now in Germany, we don’t have a day for phasing out coal. To really keep the temperature rise at 2C or even 1.5C, much more needs to be done.”