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European human rights court takes up Norway Arctic drilling case

© Photographer: Avalon/Universal Iarctic drilling
The Barents Sea is an area of the Arctic Ocean, located in the north of Norway and Russia. Photographer: Avalon/Universal Images Group Editorial/Getty Images

The European Court of Human Rights is asking Norway to respond to charges by activists that allowing new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic during an environmental crisis may breach fundamental freedoms.

In a document seen by Bloomberg, the court will give the Norwegian government an April 13 deadline to comment, in writing, on the merits of the case which it said may potentially be designated an “impact” case, meaning it could have broad ramifications beyond Norway.

Such a designation would substantially shorten the length of time to a ruling, which now can take as long as six years, and could provide climate activists with a new route for holding governments accountable. The move by the court is a victory for the environmental groups and climate activists who filed the application for consideration after repeated defeats in Norwegian courts.

“The Court’s request to the Norwegian Government is a significant development, as just one out of ten cases reach this point,” Cathrine Hambro, the lawyer representing the applicants in the case, said in a statement. “A judgment from ECtHR would be important not just for Norway, but also for the pan-European application of the European Convention on Human Rights in climate cases.”

The Norwegian Petroleum and Energy Ministry referred questions to the Norwegian Attorney General’s Office, which didn’t immediately reply to an emailed request for comment.

Climate activists are increasingly turning to the courts to force companies and governments to pay for the damage that lax regulation has caused and to prevent future threats to the environment. Germany’s top court has given national leaders until the end of this year to specify how they plan to limit global warming after finding efforts so far have failed.

Back in June, Greenpeace Norway, one of the organizations behind the application, said simply getting the case accepted by the court in Strasbourg would be a step forward.

Norway, Western Europe’s biggest producer of oil and gas, has battled with Greenpeace and Nature and Youth — two of the nation’s biggest environmental organizations — over drilling licenses in the Barents Sea for years. The government has argued that it can fulfill its obligations under the Paris climate agreement while continuing to pump oil and gas.

Only one oil field is producing at the moment in Norway’s Arctic waters, while Equinor’s Johan Castberg field is expected to start production in 2024.

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