In September 2022:
• The Secretary of State adopted the “Climate Compatibility Checkpoint”. The purported aim of this policy was to ensure that, before a new North Sea oil and gas licensing round is offered, “the compatibility of future licensing with the UK’s climate objectives is evaluated”.
• The Secretary of State’s officials completed the fourth offshore energy strategic environmental assessment (“OESEA4”). This was to enable, amongst other activities, further offshore oil and gas licensing in the North Sea. It was produced pursuant to the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004.
• The Secretary of State also endorsed a further licensing round being launched by the North Sea Transition Authority (“NSTA” - this being the trading name of the Oil and Gas Authority).
• The NSTA announced it was satisfied a further licensing round met the Checkpoint’s requirements.
In October 2022 the NSTA, pursuant to its powers under Part 1 of the Petroleum Act 1998, launched the 33rd Offshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round. This is expected to result in the grant of a further 100 licences.
As a result of the above, in December 2022 separate claims for judicial review were launched by environmental charities Greenpeace and Uplift. In April 2023 both claims were granted permission to proceed to trial. It is not known whether a trial date has been set.
Greenpeace notes the government did not take account of downstream emissions, i.e. from when the oil and gas is ultimately used, for example in fuelling cars. Greenpeace states that "this is a glaring omission from the government's decision making, including its climate compatibility check". In its written response the government argued there was an “insufficient causal connection between the extraction of oil and gas and the downstream emissions arising from its consumption to enable a meaningful assessment of the environmental effects of the latter".
• The adoption of OESEA4 was unlawful because, among other matters, the Secretary of State failed to take into account expert advice on industry targets, failed to assess downstream emissions and failed to properly assess reasonable alternatives.
• The endorsement of the 33rd licensing round was unlawful because the Secretary of State failed to provide any reasons for a new licensing round being compatible with the Checkpoint and the UK’s climate objectives.
• The decision to adopt the Checkpoint was unlawful because it excluded a test that would have required the Secretary of State to consider downstream emissions on the basis of reasons that were legally irrelevant and irrational. A further test, which would have required consideration of the “global production gap” was also unlawfully excluded, on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the obligations imposed by the Paris Agreement.
To the extent both challenges include arguments on the assessment of end-use emissions, they will potentially be impacted by outcome of the appeal in R (Finch on behalf of the Weald Action Group & Others) v. Surrey County Council (& Others). The Supreme Court will hear that appeal on 21 June 2023.