Norway’s Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an effort, based on the country’s constitutional right to a clean environment, to invalidate licenses for new oil exploration in the Arctic, allowing drilling to continue and signaling to environmental groups that it would not interfere in climate politics.
In its decision, the court ruled 11 to 4 in favor of the state, a victory for Norway’s formidable oil industry. The court concluded that a set of oil drilling permits in the Arctic, given in 2016, were not in breach of either the Norwegian Constitution’s right to a clean environment or the European Convention on Human Rights. The judges said that the right to a clean environment did not bar the government from drilling for offshore oil, and that Norway did not legally carry the responsibility for emissions stemming from oil it has exported.
If the environmental groups had won, then the ruling potentially could have upended petroleum policy in Norway, which has benefited from the oil industry while also setting ambitious climate change goals for itself. Scandinavia is already feeling the effects of climate change: In the last decade alone, warming has produced milder winters, and in a half century, the region’s climate is forecast to move toward that of northern France, experts say.
The four judges who dissented said on Tuesday that a procedural mistake had been made in granting approval, and that the government had failed to assess any potential climate emissions stemming from the oil that would be exported.
The case, which began last month, was the first climate-change litigation to be brought under the environmental provisions of Norway’s Constitution, and was among the highest-profile cases in a series of climate-change lawsuits brought by activists in Europe and elsewhere.
The plaintiffs for the case, the activist groups Greenpeace and Nature and Youth Norway, argued that approving oil exploration violates human rights conventions because of its contributions to increased carbon emissions.
A major cause of climate change is the burning of oil and other fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide — a powerful greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere, where it acts like a blanket, trapping the sun’s heat and driving global warming.
In 2016, multiple companies were awarded licenses to conduct exploratory drilling in the South and South East Barents Sea, an area of about 77 acres on the Norwegian continental shelf where oil and gas fields have recently been built. Parliament approved opening the area for exploration three years earlier, despite arguments from environmental groups that the oil-exploration plans were not thoroughly researched before being approved.
The Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who donated about $29,000 toward the legal cost of the lawsuit, said in a statement the decision was no surprise.
“It just proves that the climate and ecological crisis cannot be solved within today’s systems,” Ms. Thunberg said. “There are no tools, no laws nor regulations that keep us from destroying the living conditions for life on this planet as we know it. In order to solve this crisis we need a whole new way of thinking.”
“The Supreme Court fails today’s young people when they give politicians the power to take from us a secure future,” Therese Hugstmyr Woie, a leader of Nature and Youth, said in a statement. “Now I expect Norwegian youth to set a record in turnout in September (it is election year) and that all adults with a touch of conscience think about climate and the environment in parliamentary elections.”
Frode Pleym, the head of Greenpeace Norway, also said in a statement it was “scary and absurd” that the right to a clean environment could not be used to stop harming Norway’s environment. “The majority in the Supreme Court has totally failed to show its independence from state administration and skips over the fact that researchers say that the climate can no longer tolerate oil,” Mr. Pleym said.
The ruling was cause for the Norwegian oil industry to celebrate, said Hans Petter Graver, a professor of law at the University of Oslo.
The decision, he said, rejected “the possibility of using specific cases as an instrument to attack the Norwegian climate policy.” The court ruled that “the effects of global warming are only relevant to the extent that they affect Norway,” he added, excluding the effects of oil exports from consideration.
“This means that Norway can continue building its wealth on oil and gas undisturbed by Norwegian courts,” he said. Mr. Graver previously predicted that a victory for the environmental groups could force Norway to phase out activities like oil exploration, which is a cornerstone of its economy.
In all, between 2015 and May 2020, 36 rights-based lawsuits have been brought against states for human rights violations related to climate change, according to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
Jorn Oyrehagen Sunde, a professor of public and international law at the University of Oslo, said that in the wake of the ruling, it would be difficult for groups to raise similar challenges because Norway’s court had narrowed the scope of the constitutional rule protecting environment and climate.
Environmental groups have no more options in the Norwegian legal system, Mr. Sunde said, adding the obvious route would be to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, where young activists have already filed a similar suit against 33 countries.
“The court has almost invited environmental and climate cases, and I think that they would welcome such a case,” he said, adding it doesn’t mean environmental groups could easily win.
Christina Anderson contributed reporting.