Habitats directive in "landmark" court ruling

Greenpeace wins legal backing for halt to offshore oil exploration licensing by UK government

The London high court today ordered the UK government to apply the EU habitats directive throughout its 200-mile marine economic zone before granting new offshore oil or gas exploration licences. Greenpeace, which sought the judgement against the government and oil firms, has hailed the outcome as a "landmark ruling that will set a precedent throughout Europe."

The judgement is the first on this point by an EU national court. It represents a significant extension of the directive's reach, since no countries have designated conservation sites beyond 12-mile national territorial limits. In particular, it means the UK environment ministry will have to take additional steps to ensure the protection of cold-water coral during hydrocarbons exploration as well as ensuring that whales and dolphins are not disturbed (ENDS Daily 15 October).

A government spokesperson told ENDS Daily that a decision over whether to appeal would be taken after the one-and-a-half-hour ruling had been studied in full. But he insisted the next round of bidding for licences in the north-east Atlantic would be held in spring 2000 as scheduled, even though government had argued in court that a judgement in favour of Greenpeace would have grave effects on the British oil industry.

"Some environmental regulations will have to be altered and more research will be commissioned into cold-water corals," the spokesperson said, while maintaining that the UK already had some of the most stringent operating conditions for oil exploration in the world.

A jubilant Greenpeace, however, maintained the judgement "turned the government's energy policy on its head" and would mean a delay of at least a year while coral reserves were mapped and conservation sites designated. Time and resources should instead be spent on developing renewable energy resources, climate campaigner Rob Gueterbock said.

The ruling centres on the scope of the habitats directive, and in particular the definition of territory used within it. In the absence of a stated limit, the government maintained that the directive should be taken as referring only to territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles. However, in what legal sources describe as a "bold" judgement, the judge accepted Greenpeace's argument that most EU directives with marine implications such as those relating to fisheries and oil exploration specify a 200-mile limit. Probably decisive, ENDS Daily understands, was that the UK has applied the EU's 1985 environmental impact assessment directive up to 200 miles.

The government and interested oil companies also argued that the case had been brought too late - a point which led to the dismissal of a previous case brought by Greenpeace two years ago. The judge, however, ruled that this was overridden by the public interest attached to the case.

Follow Up:
Greenpeace, tel: +44 171 865 8100; UK industry ministry, tel: +44 171 215 5000.

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