The safety of deepwater drilling near the Shetland Islands, where BP, Total and Chevron operate, will be challenged in a landmark court case brought against the British Government.
On Thursday, a High Court judge granted permission for Greenpeace to bring a case arguing that it was unlawful for the government to grant new licences in the wake of BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The environmental group wants a moratorium on all new deepwater licences.
Greenpeace will argue that the government is failing to carry out “appropriate assessment” of the risks that new drilling may pose, after the US accident that caused an environmental disaster and killed 11 men in April last year.
It will refer to disaster plans by companies currently drilling in UK deep waters that show an oil spill in the North Sea could be even worse than the Gulf of Mexico disaster.
Chevron believes that, in a worst-case scenario, a North Sea well could release 77,000 barrels a day 25pc more than gushed into US waters in 2010. The US oil giant has also admitted in its official documents that oil from a spill near the Shetland Islands could theoretically reach Greenland and the Norfolk coastline.
Greenpeace’s challenge may halt new licences being granted and potentially mean that permission for new deepwater licences granted since April could be withdrawn. This would affect Faroe Petroleum, which was granted permission to drill in deep water at the Seaward well.
The Government is currently considering awarding 22 deepwater exploration blocks and companies that may be in the running include Norway’s Statoil, France’s Total and Austria’s OMV. Dong Energy, the Danish company, is currently the largest holder of deepwater licences off the Shetlands, but BP and Chevron have also recently started major deepwater drilling projects.
The Government has only launched a thorough review of environmental regulations this year – nine months after the Gulf of Mexico spill.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said: “The government is ignoring the lessons from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP spill was a game-changer, highlighting the very real risks of dangerous deepsea drilling for both important wildlife and the economy.”
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has five weeks to submit a legal defence and oil companies that might be affected may also file challenges.
The Health and Safety Executive warned BP last month that not enough safety checks are being carried out on its offshore oil platforms in the North Sea. It has also given warning that only one-in-30 of Britain’s North Sea oil platforms was in a good physical condition when inspected by regulators over the past three years.