Oil drilling offshore in NorwayA Norwegian court said new oil leases are acceptable even though the country has a recognized right to a safe climate. Photo credit: Maersk Drilling via Flickr

By Ucilia Wang

A judge in Norway ruled in favor of the government’s plan to allow more oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean on Thursday, delivering a setback to environmental groups that sought to invalidate the permits on constitutional grounds.  The court, however, did acknowledge the government’s duty to safeguard the environment for the public benefit, which signals a willingness to review the government’s action on climate change in the future.

The ruling, issued Thursday by the Oslo District Court, rejected the argument from Greenpeace and Nature and Youth that the government failed to uphold a constitutional provision that guarantees the right to a healthy environment when it issued 10 oil exploration licenses to 13 companies in 2015.

Granting the licenses in effect created new sources of greenhouse gas emissions even though the emissions from burning the fuel will take place beyond Norway, the plaintiffs said.

The court ruled that the emissions created from exporting the oil weren’t relevant in this case, and the climate impact from oil exploration alone isn’t significant enough to conclude that the government violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

Very significantly, the court did find that there is a right to a healthy environment that is constitutionally protected, said Michelle Jonker-Argueta, legal counsel for campaigns and actions at Greenpeace. “This right can be enforceable in the courts. This is quite an important win as it is the first time we are using the right to a healthy environment in a Norwegian courtroom.”

On the issue of the oil leases, however, the court did not directly tie the oil leases to their climate impacts.

“The district court failed to show leadership and recognize the reality of the substantial climate impact embedded in the oil Norway is exporting,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, an advocacy group.

The argument that connects climate change to constitutional rights is fairly new but is increasingly being used in lawsuits to try to compel the government to fight global warming aggressively. A 2015 case in the Netherlands helped to kickstart the trend when a district court judge ruled that the government failed its duty to protect the environment and must cut emissions at a faster pace.

In the U.S., a federal appellate court is set to decide whether a similar case in the U.S.,  Juliana v. United States, will proceed to trial. The plaintiffs, 21 people in their teens and early 20s, claim that the government is failing to protect their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by supporting energy policies that promote fossil fuel development.

The Norwegian court’s ruling  indicated that the court wasn’t willing to address whether the government was doing enough to tackle climate change. That issue is better decided through legislative processes, the ruling said.  

Norway makes for a promising venue for testing the constitutional claim because the country considers itself progressive and has environmental protection written into its constitution. Yet it is also one of the largest oil producing countries. Norway has the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, which surpassed $1 trillion, by investing its oil and gas revenues.

Greenpeace is still analyzing the court’s ruling and will decide later whether to appeal, said Jonker-Argueta.