On December 22, 2020, during the sleepy holidays when people were beginning to cozy up with a warm beverage, the Supreme Court of Norway delivered a massive bombshell. They dismissed the case People v. Arctic Oil, commonly referred to as the Norwegian climate lawsuit, which was an attempt by Greenpeace and other plaintiffs to stop new oil exploration in the Barents Sea.
Eleven justices ruled in favor of the State, represented by the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, to continue oil exploration in the Barents Sea, and the minority of four justices ruled in favor of the People plaintiffs. The minority decided that there were “procedural errors” made when the southeast part of the Barents Sea was opened in 2013, because “future global climate emissions” were not incorporated into the original environmental review of the project. For these reasons, the minority argued that the People of Norway’s appeal should be granted, and the oil exploration permits assigned in the Barents Sea should be re-evaluated based on an environmental impact assessment that includes future emissions associated with these projects.
Whilst this may have been the minority’s perspective, an opinion poll shows that most of the public in Norway believe that Arctic oil exploration should be halted due to the environmental and climate consequences of continued drilling, and that most people polled would have supported a judgement that limited future exploration. So why then did the court decide that most of the public was wrong and side with the petroleum industry? It may be due to the lack of proof, since most of these lawsuits are trying to prevent something from happening in the future, or other numerous complicated legal issues.
Although there may have been a “climate loss” in Norway, other countries have taken major steps to limit oil exploration in the Arctic. After former President Trump had approved and begun selling oil drilling licenses in the Arctic refuge, the new administration has completely changed course. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden immediately signed an executive order that put a “temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” instructing the Department of the Interior to conduct a new, more detailed environmental review of the projects. Another climate win happened in December 2020, just before the verdict in the People v. Arctic Oil case, when the government of Denmark decided to stop all new oil and gas exploration in the Danish North Sea.
There have been some climate wins and some climate losses over the past few months. The world will continue to watch with nervous eyes as governments, NGOs, and major companies struggle to answer the question – to drill or not to drill?