By Kaden Pradhan
London, United Kingdom
The final courthouse procedures of a landmark climate lawsuit in Norway have drawn to a close, and a decision is expected within a few months. The case, dubbed The People vs. Arctic Oil by Norwegian press, is a lawsuit brought by Norwegian climate-activism groups Nature and Youth and Greenpeace Norway against the country’s government for awarding oil exploration and drilling licenses in previously untouched areas of the Barents Sea. While both the District Court in 2018 and the Court of Appeals this January ruled that the licensing was neither illegal nor unconstitutional, Norwegian statute holds that cases may be appealed twice, which is why the lawsuit was brought before the Supreme Court in early November.
The legal basis for the groups’ claims is twofold. Firstly, they have posited that the Norwegian government’s exports of oil resulting from the drilling in the Barents Sea is in breach of the Paris Agreement. Secondly, they have made the case that it contravenes Article 112 of their Constitution, which codifies the Norwegian people’s right to a “healthy environment” for future generations. This is one of the first times that Article 112, made law in 2014, has been invoked in a lawsuit.
In 2018, the District Court, while ruling in favor of the government, agreed that, thanks to Article 112, future generations do have a constitutional right to a healthy environment but decided that the licensing to this Arctic oil did not breach that right. Two years later, the Court of Appeals partially overruled the District Court, determining that the Norwegian government was responsible for the carbon emission resulting from its exported petroleum products. This is legally significant, as the government had previously denied this fact, including in the Court of Appeals itself; now, however, it has been recognized by the judiciary that the government does in fact have a responsibility in that sector.
According to a report released in 2017 by the organisation Oil Change International, Norway is the world’s seventh greatest exporter of products that lead to harmful emissions. The climate groups involved have ascertained that the Norwegian government should be accounting for these exports in its climate policy and vision if it takes its responsibilities, under both the Paris Agreement and Article 112 of the Constitution, seriously. The climate groups’ legal team told the court, “Future generations—our grandchildren—will feel the climate crisis in a completely different way than the members of the court, and these grandchildren will want to know if they had a grandfather or grandmother in the Norwegian Supreme Court. I would urge you to pass a judgment that your grandchildren will be proud of.”
The consequences of the licensing extend past merely social and environmental concerns, however. There is also a viable economic issue. A clandestine report produced by the Norwegian Ministry of Energy withheld from Parliament states that the drilling in that area may in fact be unprofitable and cause a financial loss for Norwegian taxpayers (at this time, Norway’s taxpayers provide 78% of the funds for oil exploration and drilling efforts). Moreover, exploration in surrounding, less environmentally significant areas has led to few actual oil discoveries, and many corporations have already ceased operations in those regions.
In the coming months, the Supreme Court judges will determine whether Norway’s Constitution can allow such petroleum licensing and drilling in the light of the current climate crisis. Their decision, in accordance with common law, will provide a springboard for further climate cases challenging the Norway government.
Thor Due, a leader of Nature and Youth, when asked what would happen if they did win the case, said, "It will be a game changer. It will show that Nature and Youth were right all along. They would have to listen to us."