UK backs down on offshore oil habitats case

Decision not to appeal ruling may significantly extend scope of habitats directive, say EU officials

A British government decision not to appeal a London high court ruling requiring it to apply European conservation laws throughout its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been hailed by Commission legal experts as a "significant" extension to the legislation's scope.

Industry minister Stephen Byers confirmed this week that the 1992 habitats directive would be applied throughout the entire waters of the UK's EEZ, rather than just within the 12-mile territorial limit. This follows a court ruling won by Greenpeace, which protested at potential impacts of offshore hydrocarbons exploration on cold water coral reefs, whales and dolphins (ENDS Daily 5 November).

Mr Byers added that the directive would not be easy to implement in the marine environment, but said he was committed to ensuring that the next round of oil and gas licensing due next spring was compatible with it.

As a first step, Commission legal advisers say the UK will now have to establish that it can achieve a "favourable conservation status" for coral reefs in the entire area. "It will have to move beyond merely demonstrating that licensing areas have been adequately surveyed to show a serious intent to designate sites throughout the EEZ for inclusion in the Natura 2000 network," they added.

"This will have a clear effect on the way the directive is implemented," ENDS Daily was told. "When the UK starts putting forward sites it will create a dynamic that other [EU] member states will find it hard to resist." Only Denmark has so far nominated sites reaching beyond territorial waters, and these are all extensions of sites close to land. No conclusive view had been sought from the European Court.

The British oil industry reacted phlegmatically to the government announcement, insisting that it would make little practical difference to how companies operate. "Extensive surveys have been done for the next round of bidding and we are already required to make detailed environmental impact assessments of operations throughout the EEZ," one source noted.

"We welcome the decision not to create further uncertainty by appealing to the European Court of Justice," a spokesperson for the UK offshore oil industry said, adding that "little slippage" was expected from next spring's bidding round.

The industry also welcomed the high court's view that article 12 of the directive, regarding protection of whales and dolphin during seismic operations, had been adequately complied with to date in territorial waters. "If the court had found they had failed to implement this properly, it would have been a major headache," an adviser said.

Follow Up:
UK industry ministry, tel: +44 171 215 5000; European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; UK Offshore Operators Association, tel: +44 171 802 2400.

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